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!