Make Distinctiveness Matter by Linking It To Organizational Purpose

by cv harquail on June 14, 2011

Does it really matter if an organization is “distinctive”?

When an organization’s distinctiveness (identity) is linked with the organization’s purpose (greater social goal), the organization’s unique qualities provide the unique resources needed to achieve that purpose.

Organizational Distinctiveness is more than Positioning

35177975_349d43cc60_z.jpgManagers often dismiss the concept of organizational “distinctiveness”, thinking that distinctiveness is only relevant to “positioning” in the marketplace. Valuing distinctiveness in the marketplace isn’t wrong, but it is incomplete.

Distinctiveness is important inside the organization, because distinctiveness is half of what makes collective work meaningful.

Distinctiveness: How does “who we are” really matter?

Collectively, we are who we are. We have enduring, distinctive characteristics that create our collective organizational self-definition. That self-definition describes our ‘one and only’-ness, that which we have that not other organization has.

An organization’s self-definition can resolve a generic existential crisis about “who we are”, but it doesn’t necessarily give ‘who we are’ a greater meaning.

What can give ‘who we are’ a greater meaning is the organization’s purpose. When the organizations’ distinctive features, talents, skills, positions, history, and members are linked to a collective purpose, the organization’s distinctiveness becomes meaningful.

Defining Organizational Purpose

Every organization was created to achieve some purpose. Some organizations define their purpose in narrow, rather generic ways, seeing their purpose as “making a profit” or “producing a service efficiently”.

But purpose is really something beyond the organization’s generic goals — a purpose is how the organization aims to contribute to the larger world, in a qualitative way.

For example, while all financial institutions want to make money,

Purpose is how the organization’s collective activity can add qualitative value to members and to society.

The Problem with Purpose: Why “us”?

The problem with purpose, though, is often that there is no well-articulated reason why a particular organization ought to take on that purpose.

Why should CFCU, and not some other organization, help people establish financial well being?

Why should Etsy help artists and customers affirm each others’ creativity? Can’t artists enter competitions to get affirmation? Can’t customers buy branded products to affirm their good taste?

Distinctiveness answers the question of “Why us?”

Distinctiveness explains why we, and not some other organization, should pursue this purpose — because “who we are” makes us better qualified than any other organization to pursue this purpose.

Because we are who we are, we as an organization have the talent, the ability, the qualities necessary, to pursue this purpose. We can do it better than others, achieve what others cannot, because of who we are.

Distinctive qualities are innate strengths waiting to be used. So, while any other organization might have the time, the money, and the determination to pursue this purpose, only our organization can contribute the skills, talents, values, and members who can contribute what this purpose really needs.

Why did Etsy set its purpose to support creativity? Because Etsy is an artful, creative company, full of crafters, artisans, artists, creatives, aesthetes. They can create this kind of support because they know (themselves) what is needed by their community.

Purpose makes distinctiveness useful; distinctiveness makes purpose achievable.


Linking our organizational distinctiveness to our organizational purpose helps us broaden, deepen and amplify our contributions to that purpose.

Organizational distinctiveness can lead to competitive advantage for the same reason that distinctiveness can help organizations achieve their larger purpose – the advantage comes from a link between what the organization has to offer (its unique qualities) and what is needed to achieve the purpose.

For both organizations and individuals, when “who you are” is linked to “what you’re trying to contribute to this world”, your work is meaningful. Work is meaningful because it draws on something you uniquely have to offer, and contributes to something that uniquely needs what you have to offer.

—  By itself, your organization’s defining features are interesting but not necessarily relevant.

— By itself, your organization’s purpose may be noble but not necessarily achievable.

Linked together, your organization’s distinctiveness and purpose serve each other, making your work and your organization more meaningful.

See also:

Beyond Positioning: Establishing Authentic Optimal Distinctiveness
Their Need or Your Ability: Why does your organization exist?
Can an organization be too different?: The Strategic Value of Optimal Distinctiveness
B Corporation Identity: An Opportunity for Organizational Authenticity

Images from Naccarato on Flickr

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