Compelling Team Purpose

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. – Lewis Carroll

Many people live their lives without a clear direction, carried away by circumstances. You may ask people questions like: “where do you want to be in 5 years time?”, “what is your passion?”, “at your funeral what would you like people say about you?”, “how does a perfect day of your life in 5 years time look like?” and you will probably get confused stares back.

These people live in a constant state of denying, blaming, justification and victimism. It’s only when you know where you are going and you take responsibility for it that you can change things.

Focus is powerful, focus helps our brain spend the energy in what makes sense for us, focus allows us to discern between good and bad decisions. Focus allows our unconscious mind to do the hard work for us. Our unconscious mind is the most powerful part of our mind, it is capable of dealing with complexity in a way that our conscious mind cannot, some people call it intuition. Either way, having a clear direction and being focused enables our unconscious mind with automatisms in our brain such as priming.

The same happens with teams, and it is amplified by the inherent complexity of human relations.

A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. – Katzenbach and Smith, 1993, “The Wisdom of Teams”

A clear an challenging objective is condition to be able to define an adequate performance strategy. When that happens it is easy to generate an alternative, then test its likely efficacy in moving the team toward its objective, and then to revise it.

A compelling purpose energizes team members, orients them toward their collective objective, and fully engages their talents. Purpose has high priority when establishing a team because so many other design decisions depend on it.

All items in my framework have a different impact in team performance. Purpose is one of the most important because it belongs to the definition of a team itself, it’s part of its identity. We cannot call a group of people a “team” without a shared, clear and compelling purpose about which they hold each other accountable for.

As a team member you must be able to know whether your decisions and others’ are helping the team get closer to its goal or not. You must be able to know when to say no, you must be able to know how well you are doing individually and as a group. And, this can only be achieved by a clear purpose. A clear and compelling purpose enables alignment and therefore autonomy.

Benefits of good direction

Clarity orients the team, challenge energizes the team and consequential engages member’s talents.

Attributes of Good Direction Functions Benefits
Challenging Energizes Enhances Motivation
Clear Orients Aligns performance strategy with purposes
Consequential Engages Fosters full utilization of knowledge and skill

A team’s purpose cannot be too vague so that members have to make assumptions about what the leader is most interested in nor too clear, specific and boring.

Establishing a good team purpose involves finding a way to frame and communicate the work that both points the team in the right direction and fully engages its members.

Getting the Focus Right (Ends vs. Means)

The best statements of team purpose are those that clearly specify the ends a team is to achieve but that leave it to the team to decide about the means it uses in pursuing those ends.

Ends vs Means

A clear purpose is key to self-organization. Specifying the ends, but no the means, builds on trust and human motivation.

Helpful Questions

When talking about purpose in this article I’m referring to having a clear team performance objective, success measures and progress measures. As a team member you have to be able to answer the following questions:

  • Vision / Goal (WHAT):
    • What is your goal as a team for next 6 months?
  • Purpose / Motivation (WHY):
    • What will be different/better when you achieve that?
    • How achieving this objective is going to make your customers’/organizations’ better?
  • Success Measures:
    • How would you know you are there?
    • How would you be able to say you achieved your goal?
    • What will you see when you get there?
    • What will people say when you get there?
  • Progress Measures:
    • How will you know you are in the right direction?


  • Richard Hackman, 2002, “Leading Teams”, Harvard Business School Press, USA
  • Richard Hackman, 2011, “Collaborative Intelligence”, Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, CA, USA

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