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Do You Know What Your Team’s Purpose Is?

If I asked you what your team’s purpose is would you have a ready and brief answer? Would it be the same response as the other members of your team? I’m guessing the answer is no all around. Oh sure, you know what your goals are and what metrics you must achieve and what strategic mission you need to fulfill and all that stuff that is hammered out each year or quarter during goal setting and calibration meetings. That is what you are supposed to do…as in tasks to accomplish. That is not a purpose, the reason you and your colleagues are gathered together.

First, let me offer a clear definition of what I mean here. “Purpose can be anything that benefits people and society in some way…Whatever form it takes, purpose is the glue that integrates the work of one into the work of many. It lifts people’s efforts above the level of everyday, self-centered activity.” (Linda Hill etal, Collective Genius) Think of it as the higher calling of the team. I’m certain that most teams have not given this a moment of thought. And I’m even more certain that senior leaders have given it even less consideration.

Second, let me tell you why this is so important to developing a highly functional team. We human beings feel more passionate and connected to a meaningful purpose than we do to keeping score. Of course we like our teams to win and hit the financial targets but at the end of the day…meh. It’s not enough to keep the battery charged. And it most definitely isn’t enough to pull a team together. Without a compelling purpose our teams are merely a collection of individuals trying to cross the finish line. No glue, as Linda Hill calls it.

How does a team think about and decide what it’s purpose is?

  • Defining a team’s purpose may/may not be driven by the formal leader. If you are an inspiring visionary you can help a team connect to something grand and compelling that appeals to all. If the members share excitement about that purpose, great. But even more powerful than following a leader is when the members bounce their thoughts off of each other and come to a common vision. We tend to commit more energy to things we have a hand in creating.
  • This is a collective activity. Each member needs to put forward his/her own thoughts about purpose and then the group needs to hash out all the ideas. No rush to judgment. No disregard for any individual. Think of this (iterative) discussion as a mosaic with everyone contributing colorful tiles. Move the pieces around until a clear and exciting picture emerges.
  • Think boldly. Move past the metrics, jargon and platitudes. Purpose is more akin to BHAG, big hairy audacious goal. Except that it is more essential, more fundamental. “If we are gone tomorrow, we will have left behind…” “We are uniquely capable of…” “We get up every morning just chomping at the bit to be together to…”
  • Consider what helps on the bad days. No matter how lofty the team’s purpose is, there will be lots of crappy days and wrong turns. What is the team mantra that can help members feel centered enough to refocus their attention? “This week sucked! Thankfully we have big aims so the details of this moment aren’t life threatening.” You may even consider establishing some rituals around pulling yourselves out of the hole and reminding each other of the bigger picture.
  • Keep team purpose discreet and simple. It should be stated in one sentence. Don’t confuse purpose with team norms or decision making or terms for collaboration or rules of the road or any of those other important tasks that teams need to agree on. Be sure that purpose comes first and then let all those other decisions fall in line to support the team’s purpose.

Is purpose the same thing as mission? No. The mission is usually at the enterprise level and it describes what the company does. The team’s purpose will have a sight line to the larger mission but will be closer to home. Is purpose the same as vision? Kind of. It is more aspirational, bold, future oriented. But it may not provide the glue a team needs. Personally, I hate quibbling over these too often used and too often misunderstood and too often meaningless terms. We have all spent too much time at off sites agonizing over just the right words. That’s why I like “purpose” instead. It’s plain english and more user friendly.

If your team feels like it is stumbling around in the dark or a collection of individuals going off in ten different directions, it may be time to take a few steps back and define the team’s purpose. It’s not as simple as it sounds but creating a space for this discussion will pay off in big and small ways. And best of all, anyone can get the ball rolling. Be the one!

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