A lot has been made of purpose lately. That’s an understatement. It amazes me that it took this long. As if starting with ‘why’ was revelatory. But of course, it was. Organic structures are, after all, profoundly focused on function. We call it instinct.

The swallows return to Capistrano, the bear hibernates, the bee stings… because of instinct. They don’t need an owner’s manual to figure it out, they just do. We are hardwired to focus on ‘what’, and once we’ve figured out ‘what’ we intrinsically turn to ‘how’. To start with ‘Why?’ is not instinct. It’s one of those things that is obvious but not known, hanging just out of reach of our conscious mind, so that when someone like Simon Sinek encapsulates it in a well-thought-out way our first thought is, “Duh.” And our second thought is, “I should have written that book.” But of course, we didn’t because we couldn’t.

The idea of purpose is wholly outside our conscious mind until it’s not anymore. This makes me wonder and suggests that we are not born with a purpose. We are born with a need for purpose. It is not a part of our instinctual knowledge. Purpose is, instead, found outside of ourselves. And instead, what is instinctual, is the awareness of the absence of defined purpose, and our need for it.

The same, I would say, is true of our businesses. They do not come with purposes prebuilt in. I’ve been on startup teams where someone rallies a group around making an astronomical amount of money in an unworldly amount of time. Those startups died very quickly. I’ve been on startups where we had very little money but a strong clear and concise purpose. Those have thrived. Businesses don’t come with purpose baked into them from the start. What they have is the need and awareness of that need baked in.

The purpose is not discovered, purpose is determined. Far too often we become convinced that our need for a purpose is remedied by going out and discovering it. Whether through volunteering at a local soup kitchen, backpacking across Europe, walking across all 50 states or adopting a puppy from a shelter. While a wealth of experiences can aid, the purpose is not discovered – it is determined by an act of will.

Humans are the only organic structure that defines purpose apart from function, and so too organizations require a determined purpose in order to thrive and do the unimagined.