Purpose, what we could be doing with it
Updated: Jan 3
Purpose. It is a word that gets mentioned a lot, especially in organisations, and would be high on top-buzzword-lists along with transformation, leadership and empowerment. Often we will spend a few minutes defining purpose as part of a process for team building or objective setting activities. Purpose can be synonymous with words like why, vision and reason.
At the most basic level purpose can be defined as the reason for which something exists. To what end does the wheel, the internet, a football team, a multinational corporation or you exist? The question can be a little intimidating as there is more to purpose than just an action, tangible outcome or key performance indicator. Answering the reason for existence needs more thought, discussion and language to accurately describe the meaning, motivation and emotion behind the drive to exist.
Perhaps that is part of the reason that conversations on purpose regularly only receive lip service with little, if any continuation. We throw some words together and post them up on a wall, and then just go back to doing the tangible, detailed actions we were doing before. This lack of follow-up creates problems for teams, organisations and ourselves. To give a perspective on this, let’s look at a common analogy of a voyage with a boat and crew.
The crew represents an organisation of two people or even 2 million people, such as a team, a department or a multinational corporation. The fundament of any organisation is that it is a group of people with a shared purpose. The boat represents everything the crew uses to reach their destination. This includes policies, plans, procedures, standards, equipment, technology, time, money and so forth. The voyage destination represents the reason for existing; their shared purpose.
“Who wants to sail into the sunset to discover what is beyond the horizon?”
This could have been the question that led to the formation of a crew. This question conveniently provides a simple purpose statement because it includes the abilities or contributions that will be made (sail into the sunset) to lead towards a desired outcome or impact (discover and learn what is beyond the horizon).
People who are driven, motivated or emotionally connected to this purpose would come forward to join the crew. You only need to look at start-up businesses to see this in reality. People have a shared vision in mind that they are excited and enthusiastic about, and they are collectively engaged in the voyage towards that purpose.
“How do we get there?”
“I know! We can use this brick!”
“Sweet! Let’s try that.”
“Damn, the brick sunk. Let’s try something else.”
“Oh look! There’s a boat thingy, let’s use that to sail across the water towards the sunset.”
This could have been a strategic conversation that revealed the method or approach that would be used to reach their purpose.
“This boat has many details! Sails, ropes, rudder, helm, knots, cleats, heads, galley, storage, communication equipment, navigation aids, horns, beds, fishing rods, safety equipment, first aid boxes and more! What do we do with it all?”
“Maybe each of us can choose a selection of things to be responsible for.”
“Does anyone here actually know how to sail?”
This could have been the conversation that led to the definition of tangible actions, tasks, roles and responsibilities.
So what happens thereafter? Additional, and sometimes unconscious objectives arise for the individual crew members. Jessica begins leading the sailing function striving for speed. Leo takes over the galley because he doesn’t trust anyone else’s cooking. Benjin, driven by a past experience, volunteers to run everything to do with safety. Teresa takes fishing to ensure only legal size fish are kept. Sally jumps on communications to keep all comms professional, accurate and timely. And Udo is happy to look after the general maintenance of the boat because it is intrinsically rewarding for him.
It doesn’t take long until the greater purpose becomes just words carried away on a wind, replaced by the immediate focus of tangible actions and responsibilities.
Jessica spends her time reducing the weight of the boat to increase the speed. Leo wants to create efficiencies in galley operations by simplifying the food offering to make it easy to produce and consume. Benjin wants to build more safety awareness so implores the crew to complete daily safety journals that are currently popular across the safety communities. Teresa is creating a high-tech digital application to measure caught fish. Sally is redesigning the communications processes to make use of new technology. Udo is establishing maintenance routines and assisting the others where he can to help them achieve their goals.
While the above is a novel account, when we substitute these individual members with departments or functions such as finance, HR, engineering, sales, operations, quality and safety it can represent a reality for many organisations.
Jessica collaborates with Leo to reduce food weight which is also in line with Leo’s desire to simplify the food offering. Benjin creates a new incident reporting tool for crew members to use. Teresa improves the user interface of her fish measuring application. Sally establishes a regular meeting slot with all crew members to discuss the implementation and monitoring of the communication processes. Udo begins offering coaching services to the others as they start to experience some workload stress from the additional tasks and their own individual objectives.
You may be asking, “Where’s the problem?”. Everyone seems to be proactive and striving for improvements. They even appear to have a high level of autonomy and to be an empowered, self-leading team. Isn’t that exactly what current thought leaders and researchers are talking about?
This crew is no longer a group of people with a shared purpose. This is a group of people working in close proximity to each other. Over time individual crew members start to become bored with the tedium of detailed activities and even become attracted to the talk coming from other crews where the horizon is still important. Stress builds as the endless focus and effort on detailed activities results in minimal reward or satisfaction. Motivation suffers in a frustrated regression as the original purpose is no longer experienced or envisioned. The crew becomes siloed and disengaged. Sound familiar?
What could we be doing with our purpose?
Instead of identifying purpose and then sticking it up on a wall somewhere, we could be using our purpose as the foundation and guide for everything we do, so that we:
hold our reason for existence firmly in view,
ignite and maintain drive and motivation,
create efficiencies in our activities, and
keep ourselves, our teams and our organisations engaged.
To do this, purpose needs to become part of regular language and a sanity checker for making decisions. For our crew this could be regularly:
Looking up to see if what they are doing is still contributing and leading towards the purpose.
Checking-in with one another on thoughts, desires or concerns about the purpose and whether it is still relevant, meaningful and motivating to them.
Validating all actions, tasks and responsibilities against the strategy and purpose to ensure relevance and efficiency. For example:
Was speed actually a component of the voyage’s purpose? Or were opportunities being missed along the way to the horizon?
Would eating a range of good and warming food play a bigger role in maintaining crew enthusiasm and health?
Were current popular safety practices relevant to the crew’s safety on this particular voyage, or did they need something else to support them towards the horizon?
Was a digital application necessary for catching fish, or was it more effective to train the crew on new skills and knowledge that would equip them for the challenges of the voyage?
What could you do in your organisation?
Tomorrow, you could ask your team why you all exist as a team: Identify the contributions, abilities and strengths the team possesses and then identify the visions and impacts these will have for the team, the customers, the organisation, or people.
The day after tomorrow, you could ask your team how you all think the team can achieve or realise that purpose: What is the strategy? What are the missions, objectives, methods, or plans needed to make those visions and impact a reality?
The day after that, you could ask your team what are the steps, actions and details needed to complete those missions to realise that purpose: How much time is needed? What equipment can be used? When and what to communicate? Who is doing what and when? What constraints are there? What are the procedures and standards?
And then the team can continuously:
Validate and complete actions and tasks that serve the strategy and help realise the purpose; not actions that tick irrelevant boxes.
Make decisions that align with the strategy and lead towards the purpose; not decisions based on team or cultural norms or traditions.
Talk with the purpose in mind. Use the words, the language and the statements in conversations, in meetings and in communications so that everyone remembers why they are there, where they are going and what is important and relevant.
There is enough research out there now that indicates the relevance and value for building a language of purpose that holds meaning for people, and communicating with it regularly. As organisations, be they two people, a team, a function or an entire company, there is shared purpose. To help realise that purpose, we just need to see it, feel it and experience it in everything we do.