The importance of shared purpose

I was a little dismayed when I saw the heading of Damon’s post.

His essay is titled The futility of shared goals, which had me concerned. It’s part of my role to do just that — help identify shared goals so that the team can work toward them. Or at least so I thought.

But after being somewhat offended by the title, and Jacob’s illustration, I realised that I agree with Damon’s point. Shared goals are futile. It’s shared purpose that matters.

So what’s the difference?

Goals relate to the actions a team takes. Purpose relates to the outcomes of those actions. His point was that projects are smoother and more effective when people understand and agree on the ‘why’ of the work.

The problem begins when we use ‘goals’ as proxies for the outcome we want. We focus on the proxy, rather than the outcome.

When the delivery of a project encounters new information or challenges, as it inevitably does, it’s the goals that should change — not the purpose.

A helpful example

A university might launch a website redesign in order to attract more international students.

An objective for this project may be ‘to increase website traffic by 25%’, while the objective is to attract more international students.

This goal ‘to increase website traffic by 25%’ will fail to meet the purpose of the project if that traffic does not consist of international students.

This goal is in danger of becoming a proxy for the purpose. If it does not contribute to the desired result, it should change. Even before this goal is identified, there may be a better way to attract international students than improving the website.

Why research matters

This is part of the reason Thick often promotes design research at the outset of a project. It’s a fast and effective way to identify the core project purpose and the best way to achieve it.

The value of shared purpose is equally true at an organisational level, and something that can be seen in the way a number of organisations have begun to frame their purpose.

Oxfam exist to ‘eradicate extreme, avoidable poverty’. Medibank stand for ‘better health’. Bankmecu are about ‘responsible banking’. These statements of purpose help people to frame and align their efforts to the outcome the organisation is seeking.

Sharing is caring

It’s impressive what people can achieve within a shared frame of understanding, given it has appropriate flexibility. This is something I saw first hand in our work redesigning cancer care. During this project, we supported stakeholders from a range of different organisations to collaboratively design a model that would better support patients with cancer in rural Victoria. A shared purpose was the frame that helped them successfully work across their organisational boundaries.

It’s something I see each day at Thick. The team comes to work within the shared purpose of designing for good (in health, education, environment and public service). We choose clients based on the alignment of purpose so we’re invested in shared success. Because we work hard to understand the ‘why’ of what we do, we’re able to work out the best way to get there together.

Written by Beth J Hyland, Strategic Designer at Thick.

Thick is a strategic design consultancy with a focus on health, education, environment and public services.

Read more essays from the Thick team.

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