Defining Your Team’s Purpose

After last weeks post Living On Purpose, it is now time to look at the steps you need to consider when defining your team’s Purpose

Purpose is an expression of the contribution we wish to make in order to help the world become a better place. It represents a desire to contribute to something greater than our self. It is not a description of what your team or organization does. It will not explain that you build roads, manufacture widgets, bake bread or provide a service. Your organization might do one or more of these things, but that doesn’t explain WHY it does those things. (for the duration of this post WHY & Purpose will be interchangeable).

Also your Purpose won’t simply be to make as much money for your shareholders as possible. Whilst that is the espoused intent of many organizations, your team’s WHY is something that is worthy or provides a meaningful contribution to others and goes beyond making money for shareholders.

Most importantly, your Purpose will not simply be a bunch of words emblazoned on glossy brochures, fancy posters, mugs and mouse mats. If that is what an organization’s endeavors amount to, it has missed the point, which is of course, to bring Purpose to life.

The ‘Tribe’ Approach is intended for any group that wants to articulate their common Purpose – to put into words what an organization’s culture is like when it’s operating at its natural best, even if the organization is not currently performing at that level. A “tribe” can be defined as any group of people who come together around a common set of values and beliefs. A tribe can be an entire organization or a small team.

An organization has a WHY. And within an organization are teams – sub cultures that exist within the larger group. Each of these parts within the whole will have its own WHY. Simon Sinek calls that a ‘Nested Why’ – the purpose, cause or belief that defines a sub group within the larger organization. Then within each of those teams are people who have their own unique WHY – their individual WHY. The goal is for each individual to work for a company in which they fit the culture, share the values, believe in the vision and work on a team in which they feel like they are valued and valuable

A Nested Why always serves the company’s overarching WHY, it never competes with it.

The reason to articulate a Nested WHY is the same reason an organization would want to articulate the big umbrella WHY – because it gives people a sense of identity and belonging. It allows teams and groups to identify with the people they work with every day. It helps them understand their unique contribution as a distinct group to the larger vision.

Think of the organization like a tree. Its roots and trunk represent its origin and foundation. In that tree are branches – those branches are the divisions and departments of the organization. And on those branches sit nests – those nests are the subcultures or the teams in the tree. And within each nest is a family of birds who belong together.

The goal for us as individuals is to know our WHY so that we can more easily find the right tree and the right nest. The goal for an organization is to know its WHY in order to attract the right birds. And the goal for each team within the company is to make sure that they have the right birds in each nest – those who will work together most effectively to contribute to the organization’s higher purpose and cause.

Note: Nested WHY’s should only be used if they genuinely deepen people’s relationship to the WHY of the organization and the part they play in it. If the overarching WHY is enough to inspire people across the organization, stick with that.

Australia has a WHY – but so do Sydney and Melbourne. I want to live in Australia; the question is in which city should I live and work? It is possible for someone to be in the right company, but in the wrong nest. This can hurt their performance, morale and self-confidence. Helping them to know which nest to join, or in which group, team or sub culture they best fit is part of the jigsaw of building a thriving organization.

Some companies have it down to a science how to attract and hire the best fits for the company. However, the art is knowing where in the company they will work at their natural best. Simply hiring a good fit for the company is only part of the work. Knowing where in the company that person will work at their natural best and feel like they are contributing in a way that inspires them is also important.

In fact, it can actually be more important.

It can be difficult if you work for a company that has a fuzzy sense of WHY. Or where leadership is not that interested in ‘soft stuff’ like purpose, cause or belief, so they ignore it. However, the leaders of some of the sub-groups can step up to articulate their group’s Nested WHY. It is often the case that these groups tend to have the highest morale, are the most productive and innovative, have the best retention rates and over time are some of the highest performing groups in the company.

Regardless of whether your organization is a cheerleader for Purpose or not, as Stephen Scott Johnson states: “Purpose is intangible. It is felt and experienced, like a calling. It’s what a person means when they say, ‘I’ve found my people’. Purpose is deep, resonant and permeates an environment to create a sense of identification and connection that is so powerful—you would do almost anything to partake. It’s a reason for being that inspires and lights you up from the inside.”

Considering all the things that inspire and motivate people vary so significantly, it’s no wonder leaders find it daunting to meaningfully articulate a purpose that has this effect. Notwithstanding, the vast amounts of money wasted on half-baked culture and engagement programs that are doomed to fail before they even launch. Here’s the thing: a purpose-driven culture is not a campaign. It is continuously co-created by its people and guided by a clear and enduring purpose—a North Star—that acts as its compass for transformation and growth.

Bringing Purpose to life is a courageous journey of organizational transformation.

It is not for the faint hearted; it will require sustained leadership commitment, perseverance and a belief in the potential that Purpose can yield.

The rewards are many: the contribution you make will be uplifting, the people who benefit will be grateful; and the organizational and commercial benefits will be significant.

Facilitators Guide to building your team’s purpose (the logistics)

Pre Workshop

In my experience the essential ingredients critical for a purpose journey include:

  • A genuine desire to make a difference (business is onboard and united)
  • The CEO is the sponsor of the journey (organization owns the purpose)
  • A genuine and sustained leadership commitment (a journey to an unknown destination)
  • An inclusive and participative process (there is no turning back once you commit)

Today I am going to delve into the logistics of the set up for this process.

1. Set the Stage & Find Your Facilitator

This stage is often one of excitement and energy. If done well, it engages the whole organization in a participative and inclusive process. There is a lot of activity in multiple domains, many discussions up and down the whole organization and a degree of anticipatory excitement about what might be discovered.

You are discovering the single and most important reason that helps make collective sense of WHY you do what you do.

Accordingly, it is beneficial to engage an independent facilitator.

The ideal person for this role is someone trusted by the organization that has a desire to serve, a strong natural curiosity and an ability to ask probing questions. The facilitator must be objective, so think of someone who has a little distance and perspective, someone who wasn’t present at the founding of the company and isn’t one of the long standing executives. This ensures that the facilitator wont accidently bring preconceptions or biases to the process. In other words sometimes knowing less is more. Working with an objective facilitator also means they can run the process rather than be part of it. The facilitator can be internal or external.

As long as the foundation of the process is understood: that a WHY is discovered, not created, and that the Purpose is not aspirational. Nor is it a branding or marketing exercise. Approaching the process that way would completely undermine everything that makes a true WHY so compelling. The WHY is about whom we are, not what we’d like the company to become someday. The facilitator needs to create a ‘safe’ environment in which people, regardless of rank, position or personality, feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and stories.

2. Prepare for Your Session

There are a number of tasks that you have to take care of:

  • Build a team & invite participants
  • Schedule enough time
  • Find the right setting
  • Send out homework
  • Undertake interviews
  • Collect stories
  • Set up the room in advance.

a) Build a Team & Invite Participants

While your CEO and leadership team will sponsor the Purpose journey, it is most likely that a senior leader within the business will lead the project. A senior People and Culture leader is commonly chosen for this role as they are well placed for this type of initiative.

The project leader will need strong support, particularly in a large multi-site organization.

Ideally you should have at least ten to fifteen participants but I have also worked with as many as thirty.

Why no fewer than 10? It’s the job of the participants to generate stories that are a diverse representation of the organization as a whole. Remember, we’re attempting to capture a universal statement that, in its nature, will resonate with all members of the organization. We’re trying to articulate the WHY; that is, if we revisit the tree analogy, we’re trying to establish the foundation (the roots and the tree trunk) upon which all branches and nest sit. If we end up with too many birds on one branch or on one side of the tree, it is likely that we will accidently articulate the WHY of a sub culture or of a single branch or nest. The end result will be that when they hear it, every bird in the tree may not feel they belong. No matter the size of your organization, make sure to have a cross section of all of its parts.

The exception to the ‘minimum of ten’ rule is an organization with fewer than ten people. In this case, those ten people represent the entire tree. Everyone in the organization is involved in multiple aspects of the business and the group usually has exactly what they need to articulate the organizations WHY.

Like any project team, they will need role clarity. Ideally they will lead the implementation of Purpose on an ongoing basis. Thus, they will work through the discovery and engagement phases, as well lead campaigns during the embedding phase. This is a long-term project and will require a significant investment of time and energy from the project team.

A Purpose workshop is most successful when the majority of participants share two characteristics: zeal for their jobs and reasonably long tenure in the company. Participants who have worked at the company for a long time will have more stories and experiences to call upon. And if they’ve been around long enough, they will have seen the company go through good times and hard times, when it was operating at its natural best and when it faced its biggest challenges.

Even though they may have fewer stories to share – you may choose to invite a few new employees to participate. Hearing the stories, learning some of the folklore and getting to know their colleagues in a more personal way often catalyzes their sense of belonging and boosts their pride in the new job. They have a special insight to offer, since they recently joined the organization, the reason they chose to do so is presumably still fresh in their minds. New teammates can also share objective insights who has been working at the organization for years.

The other key quality to look for in participants is passion for the company. You want as many zealots in the room as possible. These aren’t necessarily the top performers. Though some of them may be. The zealots are the ones who ‘get it’. The ones who regularly sacrifice their time and energy to make the organization better. The ones who care the most about the company.

b) Schedule Enough Time

Depending on the required output, a Purpose Workshop takes at least 5 hours (I would always recommend a 2 day intensive for the main group & a cycle of 30 days for the core group to bring it to life). Organizations always try to compress the session into a shorter timeframe. Resist! Having the full 5 hours is crucial. It is like cooking the Christmas turkey. You can try to speed things up by increasing the oven temperature, but even if the bird looks brown on the outside, it is not going to be cooked all the way through. To feel good about their Purpose Statement and take ownership of it, the participants have to go through the full intellectual and emotional journey. They have to bring the WHY to life through the stories they share.

c) Find the Right Setting

The environment that you choose needs to inspire creativity, foster privacy and minimize distraction. Whether it is within the company’s office or at an offsite location it should promote these things in the following ways:

  • Choose a space large enough that participants can break into small groups.
  • Choose a space where the group wont be interrupted

d) Send out homework

The project team will have many stakeholders to engage, multiple channels of information to track, dozens of discussion forums to coordinate and reams of data to collect. Coordination and effective project management disciplines will be important in keeping the process on track.

e) Undertake interviews

If you want to experience the greatest benefit from a Purpose journey, it is essential that you seek to actively engage every single person in your organization in some way, shape or form. This is one of the most critical determinants of success in relation to any Purpose journey.

As we sometimes say: you want every person in your business to feel as though they can see their fingerprint reflected in your final expression of Purpose.

The simple reason that this is so important is that you are seeking an expression of collective intent and meaning making. That collective includes every person in your organization, so find ways for them to participate and include them in the journey.

The wonderful thing about technology is that it enables the active participation of thousands of people across multiple geographies and time zones.

Short-form questions, multiple choice and long form questionnaires can be used to gather the views of hundreds and thousands of staff. Online surveys, chat forums and social media platforms provide wonderful mediums to maximize participation and inclusivity. Your project team can come into their own as designers of a creative data gathering exercise that is unique to your organization.

In addition to online tools, allowing people to come together and discuss their ideas is a rich source of creativity and data gathering focus groups, workshops, discussion forums and team meetings provide opportunities for employees to build on each other’s ideas and provide input.

Volumes of data will arrive via surveys, social media, emails, flip charts from discussion forums and downloads from brainstorming sessions. This data represents the collective yearning and shared aspirations of your people.

Input from external parties can be extremely valuable and provide a fresh perspective.

As Purpose is an expression of your contribution to something greater than your organization, it will almost inevitably be outward facing. It makes sense to engage customers and community members, as they can only add to the breadth of perspective you are building.

f) Collect stories

What do employees say about the company? Which stories do they tell about the work place? Which stories do they share in their coffee breaks? Which events and experiences do employees use to describe the company? What is it that makes the company a special place to work? Where do employees feel that the company makes a difference?

g) Set up the Room in Advance

Set up the room in advance to avoid using valuable workshop time rearranging the room according to the directions below. Doing this will ensure that participants experience the intended atmosphere from the moment they walk in.

  • Arrange the furniture (preference is horseshoe for small groups, tables for bigger)
  • Choose a way for groups to capture their ideas
  • Set up your flip charts
  • Set Up the projector and screen
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