Why purpose matters more than ever

Author: Clive Wilson

Date: 12/3/2020

PrimeFocus and Coronavirus

First and foremost, let me stress that this article does not provide any advice for businesses to help them to respond to the Coronavirus outbreak. It offers a suggestion of one method that can be used to design a strategy for any "purpose" and this article is using the global challenge posed by the virus as a timely example.

Purpose is rarely a singular affair

In "Designing the Purposeful Organization: how to inspire business performance beyond boundaries" (Kogan Page 2015) I explore the topic of "Purpose". The main focus of the book is the purpose of an organisation and the alignment of the conditions necessary for its delivery.

However, within the primary purpose, there will be many sub-purposes for departments, teams and individuals, all of which support the main agenda. Similarly, the purpose of any organisation is also likely to support a wider purpose, for example, that of humanity.

So, a pharmaceutical company might have the purpose of reducing the mortality rate associated with a particular cancer and may consciously be aligned to SDG3 (health) which is one of the goals adopted by world leaders at the UN in New York in September 2015. Curiously, for the purpose of this article, everything we do to minimise health risk from the Coronavirus is also a sub-purpose of this SDG.

In terms of company purpose, consider the plethora of sub-purposes there may be under the primary purpose. So, for the pharmaceutical company, there may be other purposes at play, including:

  • Providing meaningful work and personal development for employees and suppliers
  • Minimising environmental impact due to operations
  • Contributing to the scientific development of life-sciences generally
  • Providing returns to investors including shareholders and staff (who invest their time and skills)
  • Improving efficiency so we have more time and money to focus on our core business and primary purpose


So it is with the Coronavirus. The first step will be to decide what purposes need to be delivered. The following list, again, is not intended to be advisory or exhaustive but potential purposes may include:

  • Minimising the physical health risk to our staff and other stakeholders, including suppliers and customers (this may be sub-divided into the obvious stakeholder groups)
  • Minimising the mental health risk to our staff and other stakeholders
  • Supporting staff, their families and communities so they can play their part in helping others
  • Ensuring business continuity, including the adaptation of our operations
  • Volunteering our organisation’s resources and systems to whatever needs arise in our community

There may be more purposes and the list will vary depending on the nature of the work being done.


The logic of the PrimeFocus method is that for every purpose identified, the PrimeFocus framework will guide a strategy to ensure success.

So, for vision, there are a number of considerations. First, what are the meaningful time horizons? How far ahead should we look? What do we see happening at these horizons (there may be more than one horizon)? Before we visualise our response, we should visualise the context. What are the various scenarios (best case, worst case, likely case, intended case and so on)? And for each of these what do we see ourselves doing and being?


The engagement condition suggests that we need to engage with stakeholders in order to evolve the most suitable response that takes account of their views, experiences and needs. Whilst our formal response may need to be communicated clearly, this should not be a one-way street. How do we engage with others? What media should be used? We consider questions like these for each purpose and scenario.


What systems, processes, plans and other structures will make our response efficient, clear and effective? What data should we seek and keep? What communications systems do we use? If we need regular updates, how will they happen and what frequency is needed? These are just some of the questions that need to be asked for every purpose and scenario we are considering.


In this condition we consider the beliefs, values and behaviours that will play out for each purpose. So, some key questions to ask would be as follows: Given the cultures in which we operate (company, national, international etc), what is important to people and how can we expect them to behave? How do our own company values inform the response we adopt for each of our purposes? What new behaviours do we need to encourage or demand?


In this condition, the PrimeFocus method reminds us to measure the progress to our vision for each purpose and vision under consideration. So, if for example our vision is to encourage home-working for a period, we might want to measure the extent that this happens so we can encourage more or less as appropriate.


Contrasting to results, success is both an outcome and a feeling for those involved in delivering a purpose. We might ask our stakeholders what matters to them about a particular purpose and perhaps to share this along with how they would feel if the organisation took certain action. A successful management of this or any risk affecting the organisation can seriously affect how the company is regarded by its stakeholders.


For any given purpose, certain skills, talents and strengths will be helpful or even essential to delivery. The organisation can ask whether these are available or whether they need to be contracted in or simply to point people in the right direction for physical or mental wellbeing support, how to support others and so on. Remember to ask these questions for each purpose and each scenario (vision) within a purpose.

At Primeast we have been encouraging the use of PrimeFocus as a simple but robust guide to effective strategy for over twenty years. We have given away thousands of drinks mats to remind managers and leaders of the eight conditions for a successful organisation, team, venture or project. Speak to a member of the team if you'd like more support with this challenge or any other you happen to be facing right now.

To start a conversation about your leadership development or development opportunities your organisation faces you can email me directly here.

About the Author

Clive Wilson

Clive is an enthusiastic writer, keynote speaker, facilitator and Primeast coach, whose main focus is the purposeful alignment and leadership of individuals, teams, organisations and communities.

Experienced in working with leaders and groups of absolutely any size across the world, Clive is committed to organisational sustainability in service of a better world

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