Making progress on Purpose

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The Greeks gave us many things, including great stories and words that form the basis of our vocabulary. They were also brilliant at novel punishments.

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Take demi-god Tantalus. For his crimes (stealing ambrosia to give to humans, and a couple of other slightly gruesome things like serving up his own son as a banquet to the gods, for the lolz) he was made to stand in a stream beneath a fruit-laden  tree with low branches. Forever hungry and thirsty, the fruit was always just out of his grasp, the water receding before he could take a sip.

It’s where the word tantalising comes from. The idea that something is so close, but frustratingly just beyond your reach.

Not the what, but the how

It’s a position our clients at Novia were in when we came to work with them. Recently restructured, they had a new, ambitious leadership team with a clear vision for the organisation they wanted to be, and had given themselves a bold 5 year target to achieve it. 

But this would mean big change across the whole ecosystem – from product to structures to HR – not a challenge for the faint hearted. They knew purpose was the key to getting their people aligned on the change, to evolve their culture and their vision for the transformation. At it’s core, Purpose is the Why of an organisation. Why you’re here, and why your people show up every day. 

They’d already made one attempt to make this happen, but everything took forever and nothing felt authentically them – words on a page with little sentiment or personality. It was crafted externally, and in isolation – saying it out loud felt unnatural and clunky, and didn’t connect internally. 

They needed help to discover their true purpose from within whilst winning back the hearts and minds of their people. It needed to happen at pace, but with care, compassion and a lot of listening. 

We first met with Novia in a floor-to-ceiling glass Soho boardroom. Our first in-person session in 2 years and the first time the new Exco were meeting. The very first time.

From this first interaction, it was clear that Novia were inviting us in, giving us the window on their world that we’d need to help them unpick who they really are. In true &us style we got straight to it with the difficult questions –  why are you here?! What would make you leave?! It’s these raw and sometimes uncomfortable conversations that fuel creative fires and give us the precious insight that changes the direction of our thinking.  

In that first meeting, we also made it clear – great to meet you Exco – but that’s all for the moment.

They knew from their recent experience that a top down approach was doomed to fail. 

And we knew that we were not there to create it for them. 

We were there to guide their team to an answer with provocation, stimulus and creativity. 

Their purpose needed to be owned by them, not by an external partner. They had to engage their people and give them ownership of the discovery process, or it would never feel like it was theirs. Not Invented Here syndrome is very real. It needed to be familiar, something they’d maybe one day say at the pub and not feel like they were reading a script. 

Making it happen

Under our recommendation, they built a cross-functional team of 9 people who were empowered to steer the ship, acting as the insight engine that would teach &us what makes Novia, Novia, because no matter how long you spend with an organisation, we are still just tourists in their world. This was mission critical – we needed to engage every corner of the business. We’re talking Oli from accounts, Jenna from Sales – the full spectrum of roles, levels, tenure, age etc. To add another level of complexity, a lot of these people had never met in person before either, nor had they ever heard of this thing called Purpose. We set out what it needed to achieve:

Purpose is more than a statement or tagline. 

  • It’s a challenge to your ambition 
  • It’s a practical tool for decision-making
  • It is discovered not created
  • It’s uniquely yours, beyond industry truth 

The team not only had to gather insight, they also had to spread the word about the purpose of Purpose. We urged them to experiment from day one – to chat in the kitchen, on the stairs, and scribble down what they were sensing from the organisation. “Experiments” don’t mean lab coats and measurements – they can be as simple as a sense check of peoples reactions. 

Ideas were at times deliberately provocative to gain a response, and test boundaries. Progress was presented back within the business regularly. 

We guided Novia on the journey but the work was all theirs. Throughout this process we were the catalysts. We asked the right questions and helped them craft and articulate their thoughts, but the Novia team had total and complete ownership. It wasn’t always easy. It was often ambiguous and confusing which was deeply uncomfortable. But we were there with them through the uncertainty, and aimed to show them the power of breaking things to rebuild them and not heading straight towards “the answer”.  

Galvanised to action

From their work and our guidance they have arrived at a bold purpose statement that feels actionable, exciting and has emerged from within the organisation. Both Exco and employees are on board, and the change has been swift and seismic. People are already using it in daily interactions to guide their behaviours and actions in teams and with clients.  It’s not been without it’s challenges. Change is hard and not everyone welcomes it, and part of our work is helping Novia convince the skeptics, and also accepting that not everyone will choose to go on this journey, and that that’s ok. 

But the energy is palpable within the business: Frustration has been met with their purpose, no longer beyond their reach but in their hands, giving their people and organisation a unifying direction, a bold north star to guide them forwards.

What’s next?

We’re continuing to partner with them on a 6 month program of work designed to spark cultural and strategic change through purpose-led decisions and actions, that involves employees at every level of the business. This includes a series of projects designed to rewire structures such as employee experience, corporate social responsibility and training and development programs that will bring the behaviours to light in the day to day.