Building a sense of Purpose


This article aims to help people think through the scope of the conversation they may want to have to define Purpose for their organisation, or part of it. It provides a guideline for helping to think about the most appropriate way to frame the inquiry. It also provides links to other resources, articles and books that may be helpful.

This follows an earlier post that addressed why being clear about organisational Purpose is important: the Importance of Connecting People to Purpose.

Individual vs. Organisational Purpose

This is about organizational as opposed to personal purpose. For an exploration of the latter, the article in Harvard Business Review by Nick Craig and Scott Snook is a good place to start. They provide a process for helping individuals, working with trusted colleagues or friends, to ask themselves some fundamental questions from which to draw insights. For a perspective on how individual and organizational purpose can be combined Dan Pontefract provides some good stories and approaches in his work on the Purpose Effect.

Creating your process

In order to generate a relevant, inspiring and sustainable Purpose it is critical that the design and ownership of the process sits with the group who’s Purpose is the focus of the work. Hence the first phase in the generic process below involves contracting with this team, before the discovery and engagement work.

The team will want to focus on questions like what data to collect, who to involve, what questions to ask people, how to bring data together, how to communicate outcomes and so on. They also need to think about and shape the subsequent stages to ensure high levels of ownership for this and the eventual outcome.

Step1: Contracting

Step 2: Discovery

Step 3: Engagement

The process iterates backwards and forwards, and the players in different stages need to interact if not overlap. Put more simply, key influencers need to play a role in all phases.



The first phase involves contracting with leadership at an appropriate level for the Purpose Inquiry. This might be the Board of a Corporation, the executive leadership of a transformation project, the functional team in a support role, the lead team of a project bid, etc. Key outcomes include clarity about the reasons why this will help the business – the business and benefits case looking at hard results such as financial gains and soft benefits such as improved reputation with customers. This is also an opportunity to brainstorm the North Star that works for this team and to outline who and how to involve others in this work.

What is important during Contracting

It is critical to get the right group of people together which essentially means the leadership. Contracting is not just between this group and an internal or external facilitator, but also between these team members as they agree what they want, and between this team and the rest of the organisation and the “system” within which it operates. Effective delivery will be defined and shaped by the leadership group working together and providing a consistent narrative.

Key outcomes from Contracting

At least three important outcomes from this step are:

  1. “North Star” – draft summary of Purpose
  2. Business and benefit case explaining why this is important
  3. Scope and approach to this work; who else to involve and how to keep focused on intentions

Activities and issues to consider during Contracting

  • Explore readiness for change so that the team is confident that it is up for a significant shift in direction if the need emerges
  • Establish transparency of process so that the leadership team have complete ownership, including the option to stop the work
  • Insist on self-analysis of data so that internal or external consultants manage the process not the content emerging
  • Ask questions that encourage self-disclosure and learning to give leaders insights into what gives their work meaning, for themselves and for their clients
  • Identify and tackle dilemmas and political agendas that always surface: such as the relative merits of top down and bottom up approaches, the merits of an outside in and an inside out perspective to data collection, whether to explore the whole or just part of the system
  • Agree clear outcomes and measures so that the team knows how to expect this work to deliver value, so that it can measure progress and so the team can learn from the work’s successes and shortcomings


What is important during Discovery

Discovery is an exploration of what stakeholders value – from employees and their managers to customers, partners and regulators. The essence of defining Purpose is to synthesise this feedback, drawing out themes that resonate across stakeholders and using processes (visuals, stories) to build on words to articulate Purpose.

Discovery implies both an exploration and a journey. The Purpose is “out there” and the work is to identify, enrich, focus, describe and communicate that Purpose.

Key outcomes from the Discovery step

  • Perspectives from all significant stakeholders on the role of the group
  • Synthesis of these perspectives
  • Creative articulation of Purpose
  • Engagement plan for invoving people in translating Purpose

Activities to consider during the Discovery step

  • Ensure all influential stakeholders feature in both the data gathering and the engagement planning
  • Agree what data is required – for a discovery process around purpose the essence of the inquiry is about what the organization exists to do in the eyes of different stakeholders and to explore what the organization means to different stakeholder groups
  • Embrace diversity so that many different perspectives are heard
  • Think rationally and emotionally – Purposes provide direction and inspire so it is important not to overlook the emotional value that can be delivered by a well researched Purpose appropriate to key stakeholders
  • Agree what data collection methods will best uncover insights for different groups – approaches can include interviews, focus groups, story boards, free form drawing, observation, document review, etc.



What is important during Engagement

Engagement emphasises that the effective delivery of Purpose is the responsibility of all people in the organisation and some outside it. However well defined the Purpose, if these people do not get it and how they relate to the Purpose, then it will remain words and aspirations on a page.

Line managers are pivotal in engaging people providing the face to face link between the organisation and the customer facing teams. Their involvement in the process begins in the discovery stage and is major during engagement. Ultimately it is the line managers who help others bring purpose and strategy to life making it relevant to different teams and helping people to connect their roles to the bigger picture.

Key outputs and outcomes from the Engagement phase


  • Communication materials (e.g video, social media platforms)
  • Face to face conversations to translate Purpose at local levels (e.g. conferences, workshops, team meetings)
  • Alignment between teams and throughout organisation on common goals
  • Inspiration – making greater meaning for people on the nature of their work


Activities and issues to consider during Engagement

  • Help people connect everyday work to higher Purpose
  • Who is going to lead conversations – will this be led by local managers, by a special team of facilitators, by leadership – or by a combination of these
  • Maintain an external focus on what people do for others
  • Involvement of all groups internally and clear communication through multiple channels to external stakeholders
  • Clear outcomes and measures against each group of stakeholders
  • Measurement processes to start early (establishing baselines) and to continue to learn what is and is not working and to help sustain the engagement



Final thoughts

Rather than looking for rules or experts to answer questions about how to build a sustainable process, the approach above represents a more sustainable approach that views developing purpose as a discovery process with a number of different steps and ongoing feedback loops to collect and interpret data.

For more information on the importance of connecting people to Purpose go to:

For more information about recent clients’ experiences of sustaining Purpose go to:

For more information about how to use the Big Conversation as an approach to communicating Purpose and Strategy go to:



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