Peter Picked a Peck of Profound Purpose

Peter Picked a Peck of Profound Purpose

Photo of a knot in a thick sisal rope

The one key thing that most clearly separates typical organisations from their more effective cousins is purpose. Not just having a purpose – god knows few enough typical organisations can lay claim to that – but having the conscious understanding that a well-understood, over-communicated and widely-shared purpose is crucial to effectiveness in general, and their own effectiveness, in particular.

“A shared purpose is… a force in people’s hearts, a force of impressive power… At its simplest level, a shared purpose is the answer to the question, ‘What do we want to create?’ A shared purpose is a picture that everyone in the company carries in their heads and hearts.”

~ Peter M. Senge

So we all know this, yes? Why write (yet) another blog post on this sad and sorry topic? Is there anything left to say?

Aside from recent constructive suggestions I’ve received regarding the value of repetition, it seems the basic message regarding the power of purpose is not reaching the folks who, typically, have the nominal responsibility to set and communicate said shared purpose.

Not that “set” is such a good verb to use, nor a beneficial strategy for arriving at a shared purpose. After all, the “shared” is as relevant as the “purpose”.

“The modern organization, cannot be an organization of boss and subordinate. It must be organised as a team.”

~ Peter Drucker

Anyways, back to the knitting: Why do so few organisations and senior management invest in the discovery, sharing, and evolution of their organisation’s purpose? It seems a very common observation, this lack of investment. Of all my clients over the years, each and every one has played the “let’s talk about purpose” game, has nodded sagely every time the subject comes up, and yet not one has actually done anything material about it.

I propose it has to be, ultimately, a normative experience. That is, it’s so fundamental, so far-reaching in its import and impact, the power of shared purpose is not something ever likely to be taken “on faith”. Or on the say-so of a consultant, or a book. After all, moving from unilateral control to something closer to consensus and mutual learning can seem very scary. Jack Stack for one writes about this, very entertainingly.

I believe that it’s only by seeing the power of purpose, in their own organisations, that folks can begin to realise that the idea really does have power. It’s only by seeing the power of purpose in action that folks can come to see how it catalyses collaboration, trust, engagement, synergy, and all the other good things that organisations wish for – but so rarely experience.

I’m not suggesting that it’s a magic bullet, or that it’s the only meme that needs to take root for the synergistic mindset to flourish. But absent shared purpose, the other memes of the synergistic mindset will have next to zero chance to germinate.

So, don’t take my word for it. How about making a start on discovering and sharing your organisation’s true purpose – and seeing the results, one way or another –  for yourselves? Are you even just the teeniest bit curious now to find out?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Fifth Discipline ~ Peter M. Senge
The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook ~ Peter M. Senge et al.
Common Purpose ~ Joel Kurtzman
The New Realities ~ Peter F. Drucker
Solving Tough Problems ~ Adam Kahane
The World Cafe ~ Juanita Brown and David Isaacs
Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive ~ Patrick M. Lencioni
The Great Game of Business ~ Jack Stack


  1. Good post

    And if you think about it … business capabilities are a decomposition of purpose. They represent things your organization just cannot escape from. We combine and leverage them in the form of service outcomes we deliver to customers (i.e. external participants with whom we have a relationship). That “set of purposes” are configured and delivered by processes for a particular service (each purpose is also implemented by a set of processes).

    In this way, you ensure that your purpose is expressed holistically in the way your organization operates … fulfilling its relationship management requirements with external participants. But these services have to be purposefully designed. Shame is that most service outcomes are never truly designed (and therein lies the opportunity).

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