Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about the concept of purpose. Every month I meet in a CEO leadership group where we process various business issues faced by company leaders, and I find “purpose” is heavily ingrained within these discussions.

Sometimes we focus on an expansion strategy that brings opportunity, but at a cost in the current momentum. Other conversations are about business processes that no longer fit the scale of the business due to successful growth or a change in market conditions. And many times we find ourselves discussing the effectiveness of the senior leadership team. Questions of culture, behavior and outcomes are asked and answered.

With each varying topic, the singular theme that we return to is this question of purpose. What is the purpose of the expansion? What is the purpose of the process? What is the purpose of the position?

Every problem we process can be traced to misalignment of resources and people to their purpose. When you have misalignment you create friction – effort is expended and no work is accomplished. The intended purpose cannot be fully realized.

As I have come to understand the power of purpose, and have learned firsthand the consequences of defining it poorly, I am struck by how pervasive this problem is in our culture today, especially regarding topics of sustainability.

Stated Purpose vs. Intended Purpose

Recently, there have been furious debates in the press about the Amtrak crash (purpose: interconnect cities over one million in population); congressional gridlock on international trade legislation (purpose: advance globalization at a pace we can live with) and legal maneuvers for the Keystone XL pipeline permitting (purpose: create jobs and energy independence).

As the supporters and critics of each issue line up against each other and present their version of the situation, I find asking the question “to what purpose?” is helpful in sorting through the rhetoric.

Take the Keystone XL pipeline as an example: while it is true that adding more Canadian oil to the American system reduces dependence on foreign oil from conflict areas, it is also true that the pipeline is an enormous capital investment in a form of energy that is known to exacerbate climate change.

I visited the Department of Energy’s website and found their stated purpose is: “to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.”

Given that stated purpose, a pipeline from a friendly country can be viewed as better than a tanker from a hostile country. And because it supplies a fuel we already depend on, it at least does no more harm than business as usual. No wonder people are confused.

If the purpose of our national energy policy was truly energy independence, then self-reliance – energy demand matched by energy production – would make evaluating the pipeline simpler.

As currently envisioned, the pipeline doesn’t change our reliance on energy imported across our borders, just who pulls it out of the ground. So the pipeline is not aligned to an ‘independence’ purpose.

Refining the purpose statement of our national energy policy from ‘energy independence’ to ‘net energy accumulation’ makes the goal ever clearer: industrial production of energy is by design always greater than our instaneous demand for it. We become savers, not spenders.

This seems logical to me; don’t most economists tell us we would be better off saving more and borrowing less? It feels like an authentic part of the American dream, so it must be somewhat correct.

All of this brings me to my second point: in the absence of a well-defined purpose, it seems to be human nature to keep moving forward and debate solutions – it’s more fun than the hard work of determining clarity of purpose!

That’s how we end up with a pipeline across the great prairie, fracking in the suburbs and waste energy plants in urban neighborhoods.

All of these methods to ‘energy independence’ seem to have created geo-political independence from other nations. But most people living in the affected areas would be happy to go back to buying foreign oil if they could.

So these methods are imperfect as they accomplish energy independence, yet are not supported by many of the people demanding the energy.

Therefore, the purpose of our energy policy must be further refined to something like: ‘net energy banking that is mutually beneficial to producers and consumers.’

Viewed this way, nuclear energy could zoom to the top of the list. Properly isolated, most users of nuclear based energy sources rarely experience any negative consequences of generation. On the other hand, the Sea of Japan or the land of Chernobyl would undoubtedly have some negative views of nuclear power, if they could speak.

So the purpose needs further definition: ‘net energy banking that is mutually beneficial to humans and nature, over time.’

Given this tighter definition of purpose, many of the aforementioned methods no longer fit the bill. Solar based generation, whether through instantaneous sunlight, wind or geothermal all are methods that can serve the purpose. Bio-fuel created through these methods adds a banking component, as does ice storage, batteries and tidal recovery.

When Mother Nature gives freely, we should capture it for use. When she takes it back at night or in the winter, we should consume banked energy carefully.

Knowing When Purpose is Met

So how do we know when we are winning? Our CEO leadership group uses a simple test: did you get what you wanted out of the methods? Can you measure any change?

If the intention of every defined purpose is accomplished through methods, every method creates a result. And measuring the results is the ONLY way to check if the intention of the purpose was met.

Fracking creates potential energy, but if you measure the drop in property values of residents, the equation is not obviously beneficial. If you add in payments to the landowner, the ‘mutually beneficial to humans’ statement of the definition might be satisfied. But if there are long term impacts like soil subsidence or groundwater pollution that must be cleaned up by future generations, then the test of time purpose has not been met.

The CEO leadership group works hard to apply the concept of purpose. Even our best and brightest need help sometimes, especially on really big problems. And the bigger the issue the more people you will need to think it through, as most humans greatly overestimate their ability to solve problems. Everyone has their own unique blinders to some aspect of a challenge – collaborate!

Don’t be discouraged if you have to cycle through a half dozen iterations of purpose, method and results before it feels right. If sustainability was easy to accomplish we’d stop talking about it and just do it.

Sustainability in states, climate change

A nationally recognized leader in sustainability, Tom Paladino is the founder and CEO of Paladino and Company.

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