In search of a higher purpose

By Martin Recke

In 2002, Baptist pastor Rick Warren published a book titled The Purpose Driven Life. It was a kind of sequel to his 1995 book The Purpose Driven Church. Another 15 years ago, in 1980 and as a young pastor, he founded Saddleback Church, his pastoral start-up. And boy, that scaled very well and became a huge megachurch.

Since it was not a tech start-up, scaling was not so easy. But what the church founder accomplished from day one was creating strong network effects. In a way, he created a platform that allowed for strong and sustainable growth. The book titles already imply that he insists on purpose as the driving force behind his success.

It was perhaps Simon Sinek who brought a similar kind of thinking to the business world, with his 2009 book Start with Why and the accompanying TED talk. The Why is the purpose, isn't it? Every organisation needs to know why it exists. A school is for schooling, a car manufacturer manufactures cars.

While that's obvious, there is also a need for a higher purpose. Over the last couple of decades, businesses started to articulate their visions and missions. While the vision is the goal, the mission is the way to reach that goal. True, in many cases those visions and mission statements are nothing more than marketing blah blah, but if done well, those can be helpful for all stakeholders.

In his 2014 book Exponential Organizations, Salim Ismail coined the term massive transformative purpose. He defines massive as audaciously big and aspirational, transformative as can cause significant transformation to an industry, community, or to the planet, and purpose as a clear “why”.

In marketing language, that kind of higher purpose is a differentiator. It's what makes a school or car manufacturer special, and might even warrant a premium. If we follow Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a higher purpose is something like belonging and love, esteem, or self-actualisation. Viewed from this angle, the idea of a Purpose Economy, popularised by Aaron Hurst in his 2014 book, is little more than an economy moving up Maslow's pyramid.

Since more basic needs are fulfilled, attention and demand shift to higher levels. As you probably already suspect, the Purpose Economy is nothing new. Every economic activity serves some kind of purpose. Every industry moves up to higher levels after basic needs are covered. What's more interesting is the timing. It is a sign of maturity for an industry to move up this ladder.

And so it's worth noting that the digital industry now slowly starts to move in this direction. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, whose 2013 book Conscious Capitalism is another example from the same breed of books, was on stage at SXSW this year, a mere five years later. If I'm not mistaken, this indicates that our basic digital needs are now fulfilled, making room for more advanced needs.

In general, that's a good thing. It will make our beloved digital industry so much more interesting, ambitious, fulfilling, and significant. We can really serve our societies and their greater good. If we can deliver on that promise, of course. And if it is more than mere lip service.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash