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Make purpose the heart of your strategy — even when your business is nose-diving

  • By Sergei Kosiachenko
  • April 25, 2021
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2020 taught me how valuable it is to put purpose at the heart of decision-making. Even when the business is nose-diving. In fact, especially when the business is nose-diving.

For me and my colleagues at Uber the start of the pandemic last year was a moment of contrasts. On the one hand, our mobility business dropped by as much as 70% in a matter of days, while on the other the demand for our delivery services skyrocketed.

For a company focused on enabling the world to move, we were in a tight spot.  So we went back to our core mission: to reimagine the way the world moves for the better. And led from there.

Here’s how you can apply our approach to your context.

Go back to your core mission

Does it still stand? Is it true? Is it relevant now?

If it is, great. Put it in the middle and think afresh on how you can show up in new ways, or how you can augment what you’re already doing to get a little closer to realizing what you set out to do.

At Uber, even though the world had stopped moving, the bit of our mission that stuck for me was ‘for the better.’ That’s what we dug into. But… our team is tiny, and the world is big. So we needed help figuring out how we could best show up, and move things for the better, in this locked-down world.

Start by listening to local ideas, opportunities, and challenges

Local operation teams will be the ones who know where you’ll get the most impact out of the decisions you make, the investments you pick. That’s always important, but never more so that when money is tight but the need is big.

After Covid started to spread, Uber went into overdrive. Employees from different cities and countries and functions had hundreds of ideas about how we should show up.

In Spain, a country that had been hard hit early, the team innovated a new product, Uber Medics, to enable hospital staff to get to and from work safely. It was copied around the world.

In Italy, the UberEats team supported local food banks by enabling customers to purchase extra items through the app. Other teams heard about the idea, and spun it in different directions — supporting a women’s NGO in the Brazilian favelas, and vulnerable families in Nairobi’s slums.

So start by checking in with your local teams and make sure your actions benefit the community. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to figure out how to unify those local initiatives into a single direction which all of your teams can sign up for.

Find a unifying thread to weave local ideas into a singular, global ambition

I know all about little pockets of philanthropic actions. I ran tiny non-profits for over a decade. So I can tell you that all the well-intended donations in the world don’t move the needle for communities, or for companies, if there is no strategy or coordination or long-term planning.

Use your central or senior teams to surface trends and themes from local insights to develop a coherent, long-term, purpose-led strategy.

Uber’s leaders realized we needed a single, overarching goal for everyone to focus on. Something big. 1 million free rides, meals, and deliveries for frontline workers and those in need around the world? No, too small. 10 million? Better.

Make the ambition binary — either it is achieved, or it isn’t

Commit to something you can deliver. Commit to a timeframe you can deliver it in. Commit to tracking your progress. Commit to sharing what you’ve done.

That’s what builds trust. Otherwise, it’s all spin, no substance.

And it’s what motivates teams to do it. Uber is data-driven to its core. So setting a numeric target was key to getting a wide variety of teams from all across the business to pull together towards a clear, shared goal.

Focus on what your company can do that no one else can

It’s easy to cut a check to an NGO, or offer up a day’s worth of volunteering. It’s a lot harder to integrate pro-social and environmental objectives into standard products or services. But that integration is key to long-term impact, so is well worth the extra effort at the start.

My rule of thumb is: if you have to pay another organization to do your good work, then you’re not making purpose run through your brand.

For Uber, the decision is still a little easier: we’re not in a position where we can just dole out cash donations. And I’m glad of it. It forces us to be smart with deploying our resources. Using our platform to do the right thing makes us innovate, engaging with earners, consumers, and communities along the way.

Keep refreshing the ideas and actions

Ambitions might stay constant, but the world changes. How we reach our ambitions has to change sometimes too.

If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then impact is doing the right thing over and over again, in different ways at different times.

Partnerships might run their course. New issues might surface and light up the minds of millions around the world. It’s always worth reflecting, regularly, whether the strategy you adopted however many months ago fits the context you’re now in and your stakeholders are now experiencing.

This time last year my focus was 100% on donating 10 million free rides, meals, and deliveries around the world. Drivers took doctors home in India. Couriers delivered prescriptions to home-bound patients in South Africa. Vulnerable families received food baskets in Mexico.

Tons — literally — of surplus food was trucked to food banks in the US and Canada. Consumers noticed, and liked it. The press was positive. We even ended up on Newsweek’s list of top 50 companies who stood out.

How we showed up for drivers, couriers, and communities during Covid was unique. Yet both before and after the pandemic, as well as during its peak, our ambition stayed constant. We’re here to reimagine the way the world moves for the better. How we do that now will be different from how we showed up last year. It has to be.

And if you do nothing else, just do this one thing

If you feel your resources are truly too limited — or that your team is too small — to make an impact, I urge you to at least do one thing before giving up.

Draw a Venn diagram. Just two circles.

Write ‘Purpose’ on one circle and ‘Profit’ on the other. Then fill it in. All the business activities that are purely profitable, put in the ‘Profit’ section. Ditto all the purposeful activities. And then the activities that have a bit of both, put them in the middle.

If I had my way, you’d then erase the bits on either side and just focus on what’s in the middle.

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