The window shade company was struggling. Mary, a business consultant, asked the owner, “What business are you really in?”
The owner replied, condescendingly, “The window shade business, Mary.” Thinking to himself this conversation was a waste of time.
But undaunted, Mary asked again, “When someone walks into your store, why do they want a window shade? What are you really selling?”
That caused the owner to pause a moment. Why does someone want a window shade?
“Well, to control light.” He thought a moment longer and added, “They also want privacy.”
It dawned on him, “We’re in the light-control and privacy business! – not the window shade business.”
His realization opened the door to new possibilities that saved his store.
The year was 1920. Venetian blinds were quite popular in France but hadn’t caught on yet in the United States. By understanding what business they were really in, the window shade company was able to get ahead of the curve, to be one of the first to introduce them in the United States, and turn their business around.
The business consultant, Mary Parker Follett, went on to become Peter Drucker’s mentor, who he dubbed “The Prophet of Management.”
To identify your team or organization’s purpose, answer these 3 questions:
1. What business are you really in?
Who are your customers and what do they really need from you?
In 1990, CNN redefined network news. Looking at news from the viewpoint of their customer, they realized their customers were busy people who didn’t have time to gather in front of the TV at 7 pm to watch the news. Dad had a second job, Mom worked a different shift, or the kids were out doing sports. What they needed was “news on demand.” CNN defined themselves as being in the “hard breaking news” business – providing news 24 hours a day.
Understanding “what business you’re really in” provides clarity for strategic decisions such as what to invest money in. Knowing what business they were in and staying true to their purpose, CNN invested their money in technology rather than high-priced entertainers. It paid off. They were the only news network to provide full coverage during the Gulf War.
Knowing “what business you’re really in” informs strategic decisions.
2. What is the real value you offer?
How do people benefit from what you offer?
Recently shopping for a new mattress, I went to several stores. In one of the stores, the sales person offered me a pillow and a comfy blanket, saying, “Take off your shoes, relax and get comfortable. We want to make sure the mattress you buy will give you a good night’s sleep.” He knew what business he was in – not the mattress business – he was in the “good night’s sleep” business. And that’s the store I bought my mattress from.
How does your service or product benefit society at large?
The power generated by a noble sense of purpose is described by the founder of Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney: “Everybody had this immense sense of purpose … it never occurred to us that we couldn’t change the world.” Sesame Street’s mission of preparing inner city children for school and engaging parents in the process was never obscured.
A significant and valuable purpose inspires commitment and provides meaning to daily activities.
3. What is the end-result that you offer?
Look at your purpose from the viewpoint of the result, not the products or services you offer.
When I’m at a cocktail party and someone asks me what I do, I have a choice about whether I want to talk with them or not. If I say, “I’m a consultant,” their eyes glaze over and they move on to the next person. If I say “I help leaders and their teams create a shared vision and put it into action,” they’re usually curious and begin to ask questions.
Focusing on the end-result you create is engaging and energizing.
Your purpose is your reason for existence.
If you think your team exists to create products, to deliver services or to make money, you are missing the opportunity to tap into the power of a clear purpose. These questions will help you surface new ways of understanding your work and new possibilities for moving forward.