Strong Organizational Purpose, in a Nutshell

A strong organizational purpose is one that allows it's members to feel like they are answering to a higher calling. It guide's peoples behavior and serves as a rallying point in time of crisis. Strong purpose serves as filter to which we can make decisions, and a moral compass that shapes organizational values. Strong organizational purpose can be evaluated by asking -the following question:

Is your organization's purpose meaningful and authentic enough for people to rally together to create value with a maximum amount of autonomy?

We can say we are Organizing for Strong Purpose when our purpose has the following qualities:

  • Meaningful - a purpose that inspires people to bring their best, one that motivates people to act beyond the self, a purpose that can adapt and survive across times of prosperity and crisis
  • Authentic - a purpose that is reflected in the values, beliefs, actions, choices and decisions made by everyone in all levels of the organizations, especially that of leadership
  • Autonomy - a purpose that instills us with the confidence to move away from antiquated bureaucracy, decentralize our control structures, and allow people to self-organize and engage intimately with the market.

Unfortunately many Organizations do not operate with Strong Purpose

Even though there are some great examples of organizations that have strong purpose, you may feel strongly that your organization is not one of them. This likely impacts people's motivation and ability to self organize around doing the right thing for the organization and it's customers. So, start the conversation, at whatever level you are in the organization! Ask questions! How can we elevate our organization's purpose? How can we better instill purpose into our values, and corresponding choices, and actions? Where can we find examples where people are staying true to purpose? What are examples when we behave counter to our purpose? Where, when and why?

The good news is you can get the ball rolling and better organize around purpose regardless of your level, role, or position. The key to improved organizational purpose, is to facilitate change in your sphere of influence, whether that be a single team, a department, a line of business, the executive group, or your entire organization. The other key is to approach improving organizational purpose incrementally, you won't be able to move to the ideal state (if such a thing even exists) in one go. I will repeat the mantra of evolution in your sphere of influence in future posts, especially as I introduce the other organizing principles of organizing through choice, and organizing for change.

The Purpose Challenge

The purpose challenge involves getting your peers together to introspect on their organizing purpose with an eye towards provoking some thoughtful discussion that will lead to a declaration of a stronger purpose and follow on activity to move towards that purpose. Again, this can be done at any level, and with any number of participants. Smaller groups, say an individual team can do this more informally, in a workshop setting, larger groups say a department or line of business, can run multiple workshops where output is consolidated into a single artifact. Scaling even larger would likely require surveying and multiple review sessions. The exact format isn't as important as the quality of the dialogue! We want to get a feel for not only intensity of purpose, but also relevancy; whether purpose informs values, beliefs, and baehavior, and faculty; whether people are empowered with the autonomy required to contribute meaningfully to purpose.

Some good questions (but by no means an exhaustive list) you can consider to start the dialogue:

Section 1: Is Your Purpose Meaningful?

A reasonable metaphor for meaningfulness, albeit an imperfect one, is to think of purpose meaning like Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs. The levels in the hierarchy are

  • Ego - winning, surviving, self preservation, the world of the zero sum game, short term share hold syndrome
  • Outside In - Happy users, satisfied customers, focus on value, the bottom line is still the most important, (unenlightened) self preservation still shows up
  • World Changing - solving a real world problem, addressing systemic issues, resiliency in time if crisis and generosity in times of prosperity

A key point of interest is that while failure at lower level of purpose makes it incredibly difficult to attend to a higher level of purpose, attending to a higher level of purpose is makes it much easier to to succeed at the lower level of purpose . Organizations that attend to world changing purpose are frequently very profitable, have high levels of growth, and enjoy extraordinary user satisfaction.

  • What is the purpose of the overall organization you are a part of?
  • How meaningful is this purpose to you?
  • Would you describe your Organization's purpose based on:
    • dollar metrics like profit and growth, or winning
    • Customer / user outcomes
    • Improving the world
  • How is purpose defined in your organization? Who defines it?
  • How often does organizational purpose change? Why has it changed in the past?

Section 2: Is Your Purpose Authentic?

Again, for purpose to matter it needs to frame organizational values and behavior at all levels of the organization. People can easily connect their every day work and outcomes to the purpose of the organization they belong to. Leaders live the purpose of their organization by nurturing the right values and behaviors. People are for more likely to rally around purpose during a time of crisis when purpose is authentic.

  • What is the purpose of the people you work with daily? How easy is it to connect the purpose and outcomes of the work you and the people you work with to your organization's purpose?
  • How well does the recognition you and the people work with relate to achieving outcomes based on your organization's purpose,?
  • How well does your organization's purpose translate into values and actionable behavior across all levels of the organization?
  • Are there examples where leaders and/or others in the organization have acted contradictory to the organization's values and beliefs? Why do you feel these examples happened?
  • Are there examples where leaders and/or others have appeared to purpose ahead of short term financial / market gain? Why do you feel these examples happened?

Section 3: Does your Purpose Grant Autonomy?

Authentic and meaningful purpose provides the space for leaders to grant the autonomy required for smart, capable and passionate people to self organize around achieving outcomes that contribute to their organization;s purpose. Granting autonomy means we give up the illusion of centralized control, and decentralize decision making to people closest to the real work. We grow teams that have direct and intimate contact with the people outside of our organization that are impacted by our purpose. We dismantle mind numbing bureaucracy and flatten the command and control hierarchy. Autonomy requires bravery, sacrifice, and a belief that people are fundamentally good. Without a higher calling, this belief can be hard to come by.

  • How easy is it to closely collaborate with the other people required to accomplish purpose based outcomes in a fast and focused manner?
  • How empowered are you and the people you work with to achieve outcomes based on your Organization's purpose? How would you rate your autonomy vs the amount of permission you need from others?
  • How easy is it for you to get feedback from the users, customers, and other "market" actors that are impacted by the purpose of your organization? How often does your team take advantage of direct contact with those people who are tied to your organization's purpose?
  • How well is the purpose of your organization tied to the outcomes of suppliers, customers, and other partners? How well does this translate into every day actions, choices, and decisions of these partners?

For those interested, I am the president and CEO of a small boutique consultancy called Agile By Design. We are in the process of putting ourselves through the Purpose Challenge, and i will share how we facilitated the exercise, as well as the the results and outcomes in future posts.

Like this post? See more like this in my (currently draft) book, Organize Forward