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A Little Blog About Purpose

05 July 2018

When it comes to work, clarity of purpose is a big deal. Without it efforts meander and drift, alignment falters, decisions are muddied and motivation withers.

Given its importance then, you might expect that most organisations would be ruthlessly clear about their purpose and that most people would go to work sure of the difference that they are helping to make in the world.

That’s not so. Instead, many organisations survive on a diet of - sometimes inspiring but often vapid - vision statements or on mission statements that read like an exercise in buzzword bingo or a tweet from Management Speak.

It’s a fairly rare thing to be able to walk into an organisation and ask two people what the purpose of their work is and hear them give the same answer. 

So here are my top tips for defining purpose; a simple routine that I’ve found reliably helps people to cut through the noise and converge on a clear and shared view of the difference they want to make together.

(NB Of course, having a purpose statement is different from living your purpose but it is a good place to start). 

Thanks Management Speak but I don’t think so. Try this instead… 

Describe the Difference

Imagine your organisation or team didn’t exist and no equivalent existed either. What is the thing that will no longer happen in the world that the world needs? For example…

  • “We deliver high quality, sustainable care to people in their homes in line with the Health and Social Care Act” 

Lose the Buzz and Fluff

Words like “high quality” clutter and obscure the clarity of a purpose statement. If the opposite isn’t true (i.e. you would never set out to deliver “low quality”) then you don’t need to say you will deliver “high quality”.

  • “We deliver care to people in their homes” 

Think ‘What’ not ‘How’

Delivering your purpose always involves doing things. However, don’t confuse the things you do with your reason for doing them. Try to clarify what the value is that you are seeking to create (e.g. the essential outcome that leaves the world, society or your customers better off) and put how you do it to one side. This will give you a purpose statement that endures, unites and liberates people to think freely about all the different ways how they could deliver the purpose. For example…

  • “We help people to live well at home” 

Use The Ron Seal Test

You probably remember the adverts. Ron Seal, the quick drying wood stain that does what it says on the tin? With your purpose statement, does your organisation or team do ‘what it says on the tin’? Could you walk into the street, announce your purpose statement to the first person you meet and have them understand the difference you are trying to make? What confusions might arise? For example, when you say your purpose is "We help people to live well at home”, do you mean people like me? If not then perhaps…

  • “We help housebound people to live well at home"

But is anything outside their home off limits? For example, do you help them connect to their communities? If so then maybe…

  • “We help housebound people live well”


Sometimes this approach to clarifying purpose surprises people. They are so used to statements that aim for pizzaz and flair that they are quite taken aback by how grounded and practical their purpose statement ends up being. Occasionally they are even a touch disappointed. I get that and I get that there are 2 schools of thought on this. Some will argue that purpose needs to transcend, to lift the eyes, the mind and the heart up to higher things and to get people excited about putting a ding in the world.

My school of thought is different. I believe that we put a ding in the world when we get grounded and practical, when we look past the lofty words and connect to something that the world really needs and that we can be proud to offer. For me, framing purpose in the way I have described does that. It connects people with the tangible, helping them to see through the fog, to coordinate their effort, to measure the right things and to make better decisions; it gives them an anchor to reality at the same time as providing a compass point for their ambitions.

Perhaps most importantly though, in developing a grounded and practical purpose statement together, colleagues can start the habit of making sense of what they are really trying to achieve together, providing the impetus for purpose to be something that people live and breath, not just nice words on a page.

What do you think?

Oh dear, no!


Harry Longman

05/07/2018, 05:07 pm

Our vision is "to transform access to medical care".  Does that pass?


05/07/2018, 06:07 pm

Hi Harry,

I think this is your 3rd comment in just about as many weeks. That has to make you officially my favourite - also my only - regular commenter :)

I like your statement very much. For me, it definitely passes the first, second and last 'tests'. (The last one - The Ron Seal Test - perhaps being the most crucial). It pseudo-passes the third (Think What Not How) in that it treats transformed access as a sufficiently clear and valuable outcome in itself while I might suggest that:

- it's possible to transform things by making them worse; or that

- access is a means not an end (i.e. it's a 'how').

If I pushed you, what outcome would you say transformed access enables for the people who are trying to access medical care?

Harry Longman

06/07/2018, 11:07 am

Yes I suppose we could reword "to transform access to medical care (in a good way)" but have taken that as implied.  Reason it's about access, not content or outcomes, is that we don't do the actual medical piece, that's the doctors.  And it's quite difficult and lengthy to measure, although to be sure that is the ultimate end.  That end might be too general and unspecific, eg a taxi firm aiming "to improve socieity".  Bounding is a moot point.


06/07/2018, 02:07 pm

Yes, my hunch is that you're right and your statement definitely meets the Ron Seal test, which is key. One thing I didn't cover in the blog but that may be useful here is the use of 'operational definitions' or 'success criteria' to sit alongside a purpose statement. These can help to crystalise what the 'big outcome' described in a purpose statement looks like in more detail. In your case for example, this might be a few short statements that describe what transformed access looks like in practice for the people who experience it.


06/07/2018, 03:07 pm

Here's a thought, rather than 'transform in a good way' (which is a bit clunky as you realised), would "We make it easy for people to access medical care" work?


06/07/2018, 03:07 pm

I like that a lot. What’s your view Harry.

Harry Longman

06/07/2018, 03:07 pm

Yes, like it. Simple term, rather than easier.  Criteria I could suggest:

- get a response within minutes

- name your own GP if you wish

- be seen the same day where needed

But actually we aren't selling to patients, rather to GPs:

- save 30 - 40% of your time through efficiency

- be in control of your work and go home on time

- improve continuity and personal care for your patients.

Broadly the case with a few parentheses.


06/07/2018, 04:07 pm

Very cool. So 'simple access’ equals meeting the needs of both those using and those providing the service. Your statements reflect that nicely and the ‘test’ I’d use for them is whether they each necessary and collectively sufficient:

NECESSARY - ‘simple access’ hasn’t been achieved unless each statement is true.

SUFFICIENT - if all statements are true then ‘simple access’ must have been achieved.

Harry Longman

06/07/2018, 04:07 pm

Yes, they are necessary and sufficient, and we can add other measures too.  The purpose is stated in patient terms because the overall system purpose needs to be in patient terms.  "The purpose of the NHS is to give a nice life to doctors" wouldn't work.

The conundrum is that the decision makers, usually GPs, don't necessarily see any benefit in achieving the purpose.  Do they care?  Of course they care.  Until it comes to changing the way they work and, ahem, possibly having to pay for the pleasure.

So we could state another purpose along the lines of,

"We make it easy for GPs to give the best personal care to their patients, in less time"


06/07/2018, 05:07 pm

Thanks Harry. I think what your last comment emphasises to me is the importance of developing the purpose statement with others. This is where the ‘transcedence’ mentioned in my blog can happen. Engaging GPs in working out the purpose around access can build their internal commitment to value that goes beyond a provider-side view, without compromising their needs. That means cocreating purpose with your clients each time you engage. I think that’s one of the interesting challenges for people in consulting-type orgs. Our businesses are not complete until our clients engage us. Only then can we really answer our purpose question fully and when we do we and they then need to ask, “Is that something I want to spend my time  and money on?”.

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01/07/2019, 11:07 pm

I enjoyed reading this post, particularly the comment about how there appear to be two different approaches to setting out purpose.

I concur that, to be of real use, purpose should be articulated such that those actually delivering the service to the myriad variety of ‘customers’ (clients/ patients/...) can virtually touch/ feel this purpose for themselves in their daily work. An abstract and dream-like purpose statement doesn’t help much ‘on the ground’.

I’m reminded that W. Edwards Deming wrote that “A system must have an aim [purpose]....without an aim, there is no system.” He went on to write that “The aim must be clear to everyone in the system.”



01/07/2019, 11:07 pm

Thanks Steve. I take that as a big compliment from you as I’m a huge admirer of your blogs (and have been quite delighted to see a couple appear recently in quick succession).

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