The purpose of work is to do work with purpose

by | Sep 20, 2020 | Meta Design

What is your purpose? Imagine this question in a job interview! It would pose a big WHAT(?) moment and make people think for some time before answering. However, every human being has a purpose. The thing that is a higher goal. To save the world? To do good? No matter how big or cliche, it is something that motivates you to set goals for your career, to be someone you previously aspired to be.

Your purpose is not “to build beautiful websites”, or “to design a smart water bottle”. No, it is more than that, is it not? These goals are what makes you relevant to others’ work. Purpose is something higher than what you do as a job. It does not have to be related to your work also, so let’s clear that up first. It is what drives you to do your job. So in a business context, why it almost never comes up? Not just in an interview, but to companies themselves. What is your company’s purpose?

In an article for MISC magazine (Rebranding Purpose) Anna Roumiansteva notes that “this thinking has to do with a belief that has become a doctrine of the corporate world: that above all else, corporations have a single and paramount obligation to maximize returns for shareholders”.

And while this has been debunked even by professionals such as lawyers and economics constantly, we keep on holding that notion as the upper purpose of companies. Imagine if you would ask a person what is their life purpose, and they would answer genuinely that their purpose is to help their boss Dan to buy a yacht and a bigger house.

For a long time, we have perpetrated this hurtful mentality that has brought us examples like unregulated Big Tech. This is simply not sustainable anymore to continue. As people have a purpose we have to ask ourselves the question “how might we change our company’s purpose so that we can work together with our stakeholders for a sustainable and viable future?

As the era of move fast and break things is over, reevaluating our companies’ purposes seems like a natural evolution. In a publication titled “Creating Shared Value: Redefining Capitalism and the Role of the Corporation in Society”, Michael Porter suggests that the answer is creating shared value. And unlike Corporate Social Responsibility that — many times — is purpose-washing, shared value is something more actionable and sustainable for the future of business (and well, the world).

Shared Value: Corporate policies and practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing social and economic conditions in the communities in which it operates

– Michael E. Porter, Harvard Business School

There are three levels of shared value according to Porter:

  • Reconceiving customer needs, products, & markets — Example: low-cost tech to service underserved communities and open new markets
  • Redefining productivity in the value chain — Example: Paper provided by companies who do production only on planted trees — no tropical or native trees
  • Enabling local cluster development — Example: the use of local suppliers and institutions increases supply chain efficiency

Wicked problems require extraordinary solutions. This is not a fight for designers (only). But design has a big role in this. As it did have a big role in building the very structures that have brought our societies to this current state. So how do we move forward? Let’s build the answers together.

(This article appears first on my personal website on December 2019)

Angelos Arnis
Written by Angelos Arnis

For the past 18 years, I have been working with product/service companies and startups, both in early and high-growth stages. I am a co-founder at Joint Frontiers, and a co-host of ‘Human, the designer’. Additionally, I am a community organizer at DesignOps Helsinki & IxDA Helsinki, as well as an alumnus organizer of Joint Futures, UXHel, DSCONF, & Junction Hackathon. In my free time, I enjoy making music, taking long walks, and playing computer games.