Opinion: In pursuit of purpose

Atheon Analytics' purpose is to humanise data.

We believe that most people enjoy exploring, discovering and understanding the world around them but, in a complex world, exploring, discovering and understanding can feel impossible; so we want to find ways to help people achieve this simply, quickly and enjoyably.

Now, vast amounts of data, properly organised, should help to describe our complex world, so we need to help people to explore vast data, so they can discover and understand, and we call this principle Humanising Data.

Why would I tell you this, and why should you care? Two reasons*:

  1. If you believe the same, but are frustrated by an inability to humanise your data, I would like to talk to you - perhaps we can help?

  2. Most of the people in business that I meet cannot articulate their purpose - and no, “making money” isn’t a purpose, it’s a result of purpose (even Black Rock agrees with me here)

It’s this second point which I would like to expand on.

Reminded of purpose

The context is that a couple of weeks ago we held our annual kick-off event at Atheon Analytics - bringing the whole team together, reviewing the year past (our financial year runs July to June), looking forward to the opportunities and challenges for the year ahead and generally (re)aligning direction, goals, major initiatives etc. We review in this way each quarter, but the annual event is always a little more involved, engaging and an opportunity to reflect on just how far we have come in a year - and each quarterly/annual event puts performance in the context of what we do, how we do it and, most importantly, why we do it.

Six years years ago I could not have articulated this "Why?". At the time we were pursuing a number of analytics-related activities, across several sectors, with a team of seven people. We made money (usually), tackled projects successfully (mostly) and life was fine… but we knew we wanted to grow and were struggling to align the senior team.

Defining our purpose

A chance discussion with an influential former boss (Tony O'Shaughnessy) sparked a two-day workshop (inspired in part by Simon Sinek's seminal TED talk) where he grilled me and my co-owners on what it was drove us to do what we do. More than that, the workshop forced us to explore our beliefs about the world and our behaviour in it; and we proposed many answers to the "Why?" question before we arrived at Humanising Data as a shorthand reference to the first two paragraphs of this article. We considered and rejected - under interrogation from Tony - at least:

  • Solving Problems - undoubtedly true, but far too generic - how many businesses don't solve some form of problem?

  • Visualising Data - discounted as a "How?" not a "Why?"

  • Optimising client performance - too much management speak, and too narrow

Tony's persistence peeled away layers of over-simplification and management speak until we arrived, a little battered and exhausted, at the realisation that the three founder-directors of our business shared a core belief. For us, the drive to Humanising Data has always felt very different from the typical mission statement; this is a motive force which drives our debates, decision-making and behaviour.

The impact of clear purpose

Once we had resolved the "Why?" the "How?" and the "What?" became clear and obvious. We stopped taking on work that didn't involve Humanising Data. We started to explain purpose during our recruitment process and to all new employees. We began reviewing and revisiting our organisational behaviours against it - initially every quarter, but over time this has spread to monthly management meetings and weekly one-to-one reviews.

Our Humanising Data purpose quickly became a guiding light for business decision making right across the business. Over the past 18 months, as we sought investment and then started working with an extended investor board, we have found our clarity of purpose to be a clear attractor for investors and has made our new board meetings productive and transparent.

If we had settled on any of the potential purposes that we arrived at in the first hours of the workshop we would have had a banner for the wall and our website, and a hashtag for social media, which we probably would have updated annually. It took real determination from Tony to drive us through a series of weaker purposes until we found the one which summarises our shared belief, captures our imagination and inspires action; this commitment to uncovering true purpose has driven the business forward ever since and has remained unchanged in six years.

Perhaps you and your organisation would benefit from a strong purpose?

[* Actually, a third reason emerged during my first draft - this article from David Pinder prompted me to finish and publish, partly in response to his excellent questions]

Guy started his career as a software engineer, and after progressing through technical and commercial roles founded Atheon Analytics in 2005, currently performing the CEO and CTO roles.

Atheon Analytics helps FMCGs and Retailers to make better use of their ‘Flow-of-Goods’ data through their service SKUtrak®.

Guy Cuthbert