HBR March/April 2022: Making purpose real

Harvard Business Review
March/April 2022
Annotated table of contents

1. Adi Ignatius, Making purpose real

Ignatius, the editor in chief of HBR, draws attention to the spotlight section in this issue, focused on making purpose real. He shares how HBR staff think about their purpose: rid the world of bad management.

Idea watch

2. HBR team, Rethinking your approach to the employee experience

Working patterns have changed during the pandemic, revealing the employees’ deeper expectation to feel connected to their companies and colleagues. Recent research by Gartner spells out how organisations may choose to go beyond offering standard benefits and perks to foster such feelings. This includes appreciating the employees’ wider concerns and interests, allowing for greater autonomy in the management of work schedules, and taking a holistic approach to wellbeing and personal growth. Caroline Rush, a director in the global human capital team at PwC, gives examples of new policies along these lines, such as mental health training for managers and support for employees affected by domestic violence.

3. Amy Meeker and Andy Wu, More-experienced entrepreneurs have bigger deadline problems

Professor Wu and Aticus Peterson have researched 314 serial entrepreneurs who have launched technology hardware products on Kickstarter from September 2010 to June 2019. They found that over time entrepreneurs become less able to gauge the amount of time they need to complete a project and fall behind their deadlines more. As the complexity of new offerings increases, the ability to foresee accurately how much time will be needed to complete tasks diminishes. Entrepreneurs who raise funds from venture capital firms may be subject to the same tendency. Raising larger amounts of capital adds scaling up and supply chain issues to the mix, worsening the delays.

4. David Baszucki, the CEO of Roblox on scaling community-sourced innovation

Baszucki explains the origins and development of Roblox, a gaming platform built with great deliberation to encourage content creation among a growing community of users and programmers. The company is based on a set of principles around respect for community, the long view, responsibility taking and productivity; these foster interactivity, mutual understanding and even earning power for its participants and creators. Ambitiously, the platform seeks to preview what the metaverse might look like, as participants are able to customise its offerings for individual self-expression and engagement in an increasingly sophisticated digital universe.

Spotlight: Making purpose real

5. Jonathan Knowles, B. Tom Hunsaker, Hannah Grove, and Alison James, What is the purpose of your purpose?

The current fad for large, all-encompassing declarations of purpose has overshadowed other definitions. But, as this article shows, companies can make a variety of contributions: in terms of competence, by delivering useful products and services well; in terms of culture, by creating strong commitment and consistent behaviours around certain values; and, of course, in terms of serving a larger, societal cause. Realistically, companies should choose carefully among these different meanings of purpose, rather than assume that only large causes matter. Moreover, the effectiveness of purpose will depend on alignment across the whole organisation.

6. Ranjay Gulati, The messy but essential pursuit of purpose

Gulati argues that achieving long-term, large objectives may require temporary trade-offs and imperfect solutions. Companies need to make a certain amount of profit to survive and so they may need to adopt temporarily less than perfect solutions. But by continuing to pursue their ultimate objectives, they show their commitment to a deep purpose, which is thus tested by time and by the challenge of maintaining consistency in the face of setbacks and difficulties.

7. Leena Nair, Nick Dalton, Patrick Hull, and William Kerr, Use purpose to transform your workplace

Nair et al. argue that purpose can be a means to reduce tensions in the workforce and ultimately contributing to growth. For instance, Unilever has taken as a guiding principle the development of sustainable working relationships, alongside sustainable brands. Work and purpose are linked by giving individual workers scope to make their own decisions about reskilling and upskilling; by building an internal training platform including everyone in the workforce; and by applying purpose to contract workers and the process of workforce reduction.

8. Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk, and Steve Berez, Purposeful business the agile way

This brief article spells out how the agile ways of working can help make purpose more effective and concrete in organisations. For instance, agility could be used to create a microcosm where desired values are seen to work, including a culture of data-gathering and testing of hypotheses. In agile thinking, doing the right thing by stakeholders and prioritising collaboration should come first; when this is achieved, profits will follow.


9. Julia A. Minson and Francesca Gino, Managing a polarized workforce

Minson and Gino build on insights from the psychology of disagreement to debunk common negative expectations about conflict in the workplace and to foster constructive, collaborative engagement. They point out that people who disagree with us may be equally well-informed, but have different information, may defend their positions in conversation and disagreement may be experienced positively. Constructively, they propose several tactics to defuse fears of engaging with others, to learn to be open-minded and choose words carefully, and to foster a culture of tolerance. Together these create a standard of best-practice around communication and collaboration in the workplace that should help clear most misunderstandings.

10. Joan C. Williams and Jamie Dolkas, Data-driven diversity

Williams and Dolkas point out that process metrics are as important as outcome metrics, including progression or salary differentials, since they point to the underlying biases that slow down or keep members of disadvantaged minorities from getting onto the upper levels of the corporate ladder. However, to begin to collect such data, companies need to overcome the fear that this would open them to litigation by arguably providing proof of illegal discriminatory practices. Responding to these concerns, the article provides practical advice, covering two large areas: how to determine your tolerance for risk and how to create an effective plan for action.

11. H. James Wilson and Paul R. Daugherty, Robots need us more than we need them

Wilson and Daugherty draw on their work at Accenture to bring to the fore how companies have combined human and artificial intelligence to create superior, income-generating innovations. Warehouse logistics companies and retailers, such as Knapp, McDonalds, L.L. Bean, Etsy and Ocado illustrate how employees can train robots or machine learning algorithms to incorporate their expertise, and how to build IT infrastructures able to harvest and process data to inform better business decisions, to serve customers on multiple channels and to provide the basis for strategic decisions about company offerings.

12. Diane Gherson and Linda Gratton, Managers cannot do it all

Changes brought about by process engineering, digitization, and agile and flexible working are leading to major shifts in the role of the manager in many organizations. Gherson and Gratton define this succinctly as a move from manager to people leader, in terms of power, as the success of the team becomes paramount; of skills, as overseeing is replaced by coaching; and in workplace structures, from static and physical to fluid and digital. Close case studies in banking (Standard Chartered), tech (IBM) and telecommunications (Telstra) show how advanced companies are beginning to incorporate such insights, redefining the managerial role and supporting transitions.

13. Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Tuna Cem Hayirli, Creating high-impact coalitions

Moss Kanter and Cem Hayirli draw on several real-life examples of large cross-sector multi-stakeholder initiatives to argue that this is an organisational form emerging in response to complex, society-wide problems, such as the recent pandemic or chronic economic underdevelopment. These initiatives are characterised by open boundaries, flexible structures for evolving tasks and a mission-determined life span. Their success is linked to five organizational principles: exercise of moral leadership; operation at the speed of trust; a realistic balance of commitments; an ability to navigate competing coalitions; and a focus on solutions. As the many examples presented here show, this is a challenging, next level skill for organisational leaders, vitally necessary in our increasingly connected and complex societies.

14. David C. Edelman and Mark Abraham, Customer experience in the age of AI

The increasingly high levels of personalisation that customers experience in many interactions, from retail to banking and home care, reflect the depth and reach of digitalisation within companies. In this article Edelman and Abraham illustrate how cutting-edge companies are building intelligent experience engines that can personalise every touch point in the customer journey, leading to significant increases in customer satisfaction, sales, and profits. Tens of examples of solutions and practices in a variety of sectors help expand the imagination of what a seamless, end-to-end customer experience might look like. While full orchestration across all channels remains elusive, merging physical and digital experiences may allow traditional companies to recover some of the ground lost to first movers in the tech field.

15. Roger L. Martin, The real secret to retaining talent

Martin focuses on star performers and the need to make them stay, but this is advice useful across the board, since everyone’s best contribution is required for the successful completion of projects. To motivate people deeply requires an ability to make each person feel appreciated, and heard, in a way that may be very specific to them. Martin distils three rules of thumb for dealing with exceptional talent, and which may be tried out in general, never dos, as he calls them: never dismiss their ideas; never block their development; never pass up the chance to praise them.

16. Mihir A. Desai, Mark Egan and Scott Mayfield, A better way to assess managerial performance

The common assumption is that the total shareholder return (TSR) is a good measure of managerial performance at public companies: when managerial/operational competence is, share prices go up and the TSR is higher. Desai et al. show however that the method for calculating TSR introduces significant distortions. It takes it as given that dividends distributed to shareholders stay with the company and ignores the redistributive effect of buy-back share purchases. The authors propose instead to measure the core operating shareholder return (COSR), in which the assumption is that dividends and buybacks are invested in a neutral S&P 500 index. Assessments of performance produced according to TSR and COSR can diverge widely; on the whole S&P 500 companies have transferred more than a trillion dollars in value from long-term to short-term shareholders from 2011 to 2020.


17. Randall S. Peterson and Kristin J. Behfar, When to cooperate with colleagues and when to compete

It seems obvious, but it is easily forgotten, that behaviour in the workplace is shaped by self-interest. There are many nuances that come with this, and the article offers a range of scenarios linked to a typology of work relationships. At one end, in inimical relationships characterised by conflict, workers are trying to defeat or deny each other’s interest. At the other, allies collaborate, and their self-interests are merged with the interests of others. Equally, employees may be in a relation of competition, acting like rivals; they may be seeking neighbourly independence; or they may cooperate as friends, balancing self- and joint interests. Relationships are likely to change depending on individual priorities at any given time.

18. Rakesh Bohra and Jyotsna Bhatnagar, Case study: One employee went freelance. Now everyone wants the same deal

Transitions from employee to freelance contractor are common in the creative industries, and this case study looks at the ramifications for individuals as well as the company’s ability to manage expectations among employees and to match objectives and resources.

19. Toby Lester, Finding middle ground

Lester reviews two books and two podcasts about blue-collar and white-collar workers in the USA. Their distinctive cultures revolve around being and belonging versus achieving and becoming; having a job or having a career; strong boundaries around working hours versus commitment to delivering on tasks irrespective of how long this takes, and so on. Since the middle-classes enjoy more prestige, they are called upon to show appropriate respect for the culture and achievements of the working classes.

20. Alison Beard, Life’s work interview with Sarah Cooper

A writer, stand-up comic and actor, Cooper reflects on her experiences as an economically insecure artist, slowly gaining recognition and traction in popular culture, and as an employee at Yahoo and Google. Workplace experiences become fodder for satire and broader cultural commentary; laughter gives us not only relief, but also opens new avenues for thinking and reflection.