The purpose of purpose

Capture blogLately I have been turning my attention to the subject of ‘purpose’.  My friend Pete Burden and I are busy drafting a paper for a conference dedicated to ‘Organisations with Purpose’; in short what might our response be to corporate scandals and a lack of ethics in business.

It seems that people are all too happy to craft a few crisp words about what they want an organisation to be and to label this as a ‘purpose’, into the mix you could add ‘vision’, ‘mission’ and the like. Now I know that people hold strong views on this, carefully drawing distinctions between them. All well and good but that does not interest me right now. Instead I want to focus on how we might pay attention to these words in the face of conflicting and confusing situations we find ourselves in, often with little information. In other words the entanglement between pre-thought gestures of ‘purpose’ and the messiness of life.

It was Michel DeCerteau, the French Jesuit monk, social scientist and philosopher as well as meticulous commentator on the mundane of routine life who pointed out:

The characteristically subtle logic of … ‘ordinary’ activities comes to light only in details. And hence it seems to me that …, as its bond to another culture is rendered more explicit, will only be assisted in leading readers to uncover for themselves, in their own situation, their own tactics, their own creations, and their own initiatives (DeCerteau, 1984, pix).

What I think he is getting at, in the introduction to his book The Practice of Everyday Life, is how relevant and the interesting people’s accounts are as they try to navigate their way around day to day challenges and opportunities they face. A short account, well written or told, captures attention and puts us in the melee, allowing us to run through the dilemmas faced. In other words, although each of our stories is dripping with context and is unique, we can imagine ourselves there, facing those issues. And it is this that has worth in terms of developing our practice.

Like the Roman god, Janus, who looks both ways into the future and the past, it seems that we need a similar knack when it comes to purpose.  In short, to develop the ability to both communicate in snappy soundbites and to talk richly of how we bring those to life in our daily work. A friend reminded me of Wittgenstein’s (1969) later thoughts when he noted:

Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself (para 139).

We do not learn the practice of making empirical judgements by learning rules: we are taught judgements and their connexion with other judgements. A totality of judgements is made plausible to us (para 140).

The question is: for those of us that have been involved in crafting an organisation’s purpose, how much time have we given to enabling those richer conversations to occur to make connections between hoped for ‘purpose’ with the routines of everyday life. And then how those routines of conversation might be sustained to nurture any growing sense of purpose.


DeCerteau M (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shotter J (2005) Understanding Process From Within: An Argument for ‘Withness’-Thinking. Organization Studies, 27(4), 585–604.

Wittgenstein L (1969) On Certainty. Anscombe G and von Wright G (eds), New York: Harper Torchbooks.


One thought on “The purpose of purpose

  1. More than anything else I can think of (right now) notions of purpose seduce, bamboozle and disillusion us humans again and again, so often that one might think we might learn, but there is little evidence that we do.
    We think we see purpose in the smallest remotest apparent, especially visual and timely, connections between events. We presume that our purpose will be apparent to others without declaring it and we expect that the systems we create for a purpose will fulfil that purpose even while we design them not to achieve it. Managers of organisations repeat this so routinely with the performance management, learning, quality management and pay and reward systems that systemically undermine the declared purpose of their organisations that there must be some other systemic forces at work. I wonder what they are and why we don’t seem able to understand and integrate them usefully?

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