Create a culture of local purpose in a company rather than just tasks and goals based activities, and create a purpose based organisation ready for adaptation. Create a vision and engage all members of the team through a three-part focus: The why is about the true reason of existence of your activity and your own reason. The what is about what you will really do. It defines your mission. It explains the tangible result or benefit of your activity, no matter how you do it. The how defines the key elements of the vision that sustains your activity. The how is how you do it, how you make the what happen.
Tell why, what, and how to create links to measurable success. Use those three questions to define any activity at a company and use them as the primary tool to measure progress.
Company purpose is known to be a great lever to create teamwork and rally employees, to engage them, give them a direction. It can serve to people connect to what they do at an emotional level. As Collins and Porras said in Built to Last, “purpose is the set of fundamental reasons of a company’s beyond making money”. It fosters agility and adaptation as it does not define people’s daily activity but on the contrary, it gives them a direction.
We see three major problems that create barriers to the company purpose and the link to transformational capability to create an adaptability advantage.
1. Company purpose may be too vast to create this motivation at the individual level. As Patrick Storhaye highlights in his book “Le plaisir d’entreprendre”, People will engage in something if they share its purpose, if they feel that they can deliver something of value. If the benefit they can get out of accomplishing the purpose is balanced with the effort they will have to produce.
2. Purpose is generally created and rolled out by the leadership. If well done it’s a great tool, but this type of approach can reinforce a feeling in employees that they are driven by somebody else, or that what they do falls under command and control mechanisms. This further prevents achievement of the best adaptation advantage. Individuals are more willing to implement something when they participated in the design.
3. Even for companies that have a purpose statement, it is not used as the primary tool to measure progress and success. When it comes to the field, employees are still managed with tasks descriptions and individual goals first. So purpose can not act as a tool to empower adaptability, as it remains restricted by individual goals and tasks descriptions.
Everyone starting to lead an initiative or activity shall, prior to the start of the activity, engage in the following three actions:
Create a vision for the initiative. This is a broad statement about the activity and the reasons that justify it, that shall not be too precise but give a directional idea of why it is important, what is hoped for as an outcome and that the how the unit/department/organization will benefit.
Engage with all the members of the team that will work to deliver against the initiative, present them the vision and co-create with the team a formal description answering three questions plus one.
The three questions:
● The WHY is about the true reason of existence of your activity and your own reason. It’s about the problem you want to solve, it’s about the value you want to create for others. It’s not about finance, it’s not about shareholders, but about the fundamental meaning of the activity.
● The WHAT is about what you will really do. It defines your mission. It explains the tangible result or benefit of your activity, no matter how you do it.
● The HOW defines the key elements of the vision that sustains your activity. The how is how you do it, how you make the what happen.
To make sure all activity remains aligned with the business, all purpose shall cascade. A “child” purpose cascades from a “parent purpose” if it helps, by its result, to implement or realize the parent purpose. A child purpose shall identify one of the elements that is required by the parent purpose, one of the problems that may arise in realizing it, and have a ‘why’ that defines it. Thus the ‘why, what, how’ created here shall cascade from the intial one that is already in place at another place within the company.
The bonus question is the definition of how success of the activity will look. It shall be described as a story, as a description of the world after the initiative has been delivered.
Engage with the one at the company that will sponsor the initiative and will have the ability to engage the company as the ‘sponsor’ (or engagement leader) and present this leader with the ‘why, what, how’ as well as how success will look. This should also demonstrate how this cascades the higher level ‘why, what, how’ to demonstrate business alignment.
It may take several iterations to get all three of these aligned : leader vision, team definition of ‘why, what, how’ and engagement leader validation.
Use the definition ‘why, what, how’ with how success will look, as the primary tool to measure activity progress and people contribution. Any other definition, like list of tasks, goals, KPIs, process, is secondary and shall be added as illustration or guidance.
This process is mainly leader centred. HR has duty to help ensure the leader process happens, facilitating the 3 actions. Additionally, HR can serve to coach both leaders and team members in how to achieve a good ‘why, what, how’ approach and what creates success. HR shall also maintain a directory of active ‘why, what, how’ cases and facilitate organizational communication.
Let’s move back in time and go to the first half of the 19th century, in America. The United States is still a young nation surrounded by English, Spanish, French. Jefferson wants to strengthen the nation, create a sustainable independance. To achieve this, he initiates the conquest of the west, so that the nation can create a unique land for it and become healthier. And to launch a movement that will put millions of Americans on a journey to the west, he promotes new values like pioneer spirit and offers the land to the one that will settle there. You have a why, a what, and a how. To strengthen and create a sustainable nation (the why), conquest the lands west of the Mississippi (the what) with a pioneer spirit and offering the land to the one that will settle (the how).
Now, this is a very vast purpose. That has its own problems to solve. One could raise his hand and say : hey ! It’s great to go to the west, but you need to transport things and goods. So you can create a child purpose. To support the conquest of the west, you need to transport people and good to the pacific coast (this is a why). So you need a transcontinental railway (the what). You will create it by joining the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railways (this is a how). This is a child purpose.
By activity we mean any activity : it can be a project, it can be a team, a department, a group of interest, a circle, a tribe. It can also be an individual activity.
We use the term leader to designate the one that will lead the realisation of the activity. Note that in case leadership is shared amongst multiple people, the hack still applies.
By engagement leader, we mean someone that has the ability to engage the company in the activity, someone that can engage its company in an activity that can impact the overall client experience.
To measure engagement, ask all team member two questions : do you feel this activity, as described, makes sense ? Do you feel you can deliver something for it?
By engaging in an initiative answering the three questions plus one, you define it more by its purpose than by what it’s made of. So you give a better directional statement for individuals working to deliver it, enabling their ability to:
● Define individually what will be their contribution,
● Balance this contribution with the effort to be made,
● Contribute to what is aligned with their own values.
Purpose can also be used as a reference direction as soon as something unexpected happens, making external controls useless, since any valid solution will follow the purpose of the activity. It can therefore serve as a guidance enabling adaptation, as well as create engagement.
By enabling the team-work to co-create the purpose out of the leader vision, we respect both leadership and we also respect cooperation as a key way to enhance team-work and adaptability.
By cascading purposes we ensure business alignment of all activities emerging from the field and resulting from adaptability.
By capturing the moment a leader launches a new initiative such as launching a new project, becoming leader of a team, or forming a new team, we help capture the earliest moments where an initiative is described. This can serve to instil a culture of purpose that can progressively emerge beyond the task-based work description. The purpose-based approach will support the HR processes in being updated to reflect the new way to work through initiatives, will impact hiring, goal settings and performance appraisals.
When fully in place, this culture of purpose based activities can transform a company to something that resembles a group of small birds flying. When you look at the group of birds at the scale of any single bird, you see small sub groups of them flying in many different directions; responding to any local perturbation and also what does their neighbour. At the bird level, individual initiative drives the flight. But when you look at the group as a whole, you see that it moves in one direction. Its shape constantly evolves, but the group itself moves where it has set out to go.
First to initiate cascading, there must exist a ‘why, what, how’ at the higher level, such as the company level. So it’s the CEO’s duty, as leader of the whole company, to make sure the three actions are done at the company level to then let cascading purposes emerge.
To have purpose-based activity empower adaptability, it is essential that the answer to the three questions, ‘why, what, how’ plus the success description is not done external to the team that will deliver it. Otherwise it would be a subtle way to follow command and control paradigms.
Experts in traditional activity description, like PMO, project managers, traditional managers or process specialists may have doubts this approach. Address this through reference to the transformational aspects. First define the ‘why, what, how’ plus success descriptions and then let them add their traditional approaches for describing, remaining aligned to the new approach.
Last challenge is to loose alignement with ‘why, what, how’ during the course of a project. As project are generaly led by plans, make sure the ‘why, what, how’ is integrated as primary definition is the plan along with check-ins along the way. At each check-in, validity of the ‘why, what, how’ shall be reassessed given what has been learnt in the project and validated again or pivoted by the team members, in a true agile manner.
An organization can continue to do normal management processes as before, and then start to use the ‘why, what, how’ as the primary tool for activity description, shifting progressively from a task/goals based description to a purpose-based description.
This approach can be easily experienced by applying it to any new initiative. Ensure that there is a ‘why, what, how’ at the company level as a clear ‘parent’ purpose that can be cascaded. It may be easier to start with a parent purpose at a lower level, the one of a department for example, and use the ‘why, what, how’ approach to launch a first project within the department.
Measure department members engagement index prior to the test. Ask them if they know why they do what they do, ask them if they feel they have an impact on what the company does for its clients, and ask them if they feel they can master what they have to do by themselves.
Then select a project to be launched, and use the hack to describe it.
Then ask again the project members the same questions and measure impact. Let the project launch, and 90 days after launch, ask again the same questions. Measure progress.