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At what level in an organization does defining a project or team’s purpose do more harm than good? How many purpose statements live inside of an organization? Why not inherit the parent purpose and set a simple objective? Does every team require a purpose? I wrote these question down in my notebook while attending a recent workshop where the team was struggling to come together on a purpose that felt impactful.

The number of purpose statements that sit inside of our client’s organizations can, at times, feel baffling. Namely that’s because they all sound so similar and it’s unclear to me where one purpose starts and another ends. There’s this tendency to make every project or team’s purpose sound transformative and ever-lasting. Worse yet, teams will unknowingly (or knowingly) usurp other purpose statements that sit inside or outside of their domain, making them something bigger than they need to be. When these transformative purposes pop up in the wrong places in an organization we start to get questions like this:

How will this this new purpose influence what I spend my time on? I feel like nothing is going to change.

In most cases they’re absolutely right. Nothing changes. A purpose that feels transformative for a project that’s only meant to last a few months feels daunting or the purpose feels like an empty container that can be filled with anything. This is paralyzing. When we’re working with a senior leadership team on their organization-wide purpose we talk about couple of things that make for a good purpose. A good purpose is:

Most teams are pretty good at the durability and honesty bits, but have a really tough time making purpose fractal and capable of being a decision lens. To give you a benchmark for what good looks like here’s Khan Academy’s purpose:

To provide a free, world‑class education for anyone, anywhere.

It does a nice job of hitting on all four points. Giving away a world class education for free is certainly durable (+ bonus points for making a dent in the universe). Based on my own experience with Khan Academy it’s definitely honest. And yeah, I know that if I worked for Khan Academy’s product team and I proposed a feature that lived behind a pay wall that the purpose would either steer us away from making that decision all together or we’d create a plan to eventually make it free. Having an org-wide purpose that meets these criteria makes it so much easier for everyone else in the organization to unpack their own team’s purpose (or not even feel the need to have one). When you can’t check the box on even one of these things you start to find sub-purpose statements crafted by other business units, committees, and what have you that mean little and make no difference.

We see this lack of clarity a lot and so something we’ve started to explore is the idea of having purpose be bound by different time scales. When I shared this idea to our #theory Slack channel @MikeArauz, one of UC’s Partners, jumped in:

My thinking is that below the over-arching massive transformative org-wide purpose, all sub-purposes should be the equivalent of Objectives (in OKR speak), and bound by time in increments of 1 year, 1 quarter, 1 month, or 1 week (getting shorter as you move from the center out to the edges of the org).

  • M.T.P. should be huge, ambitious, visionary, and un-bound by time
  • Small teams at the edges should have purposes that last weeks or months
  • Team-level purposes should be time-based, and close to a mission or ‘Objective’ (as in OKRs)
  • Mid-level teams should have purposes that last months or quarters
  • And the largest, most ‘permanent’ divisions/teams/functions should have purposes that last quarters or up to 1 year

I really like this format as a starting structure. While it can certainly be unpacked further it gives teams a nice way to frame their thinking when purpose is being discussed. It also does away with semantics. Wait, is this a goal? No, it’s definitely a vision. Mmmmm… more of an objective, but sure call it a purpose if that’s what feels right to you. At times we get lost in this discussion with our clients and I personally find it unproductive even at the best of times. Scaling purpose up and down, across teams and projects, makes much more sense to me.

This is where panarchy comes in – everything is a project and every project has a purpose, but projects are fractal and some last a century and some last a day. - @AaronDignan

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