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Why teams need purpose

How many times have you joined a team and been able to actually define its purpose? Most of the time, you join a team, and a lot of what you get is, ‘this is us’, ‘this is what we do’, or ‘this is how we do things/how we’ve always done it’. All too often leaders fail to take the opportunity to reflect on their team’s purpose and to pivot accordingly.

While we often reflect and change direction on tons of things in life, be it diets or commutes, we lack the same impulse when it comes to the purpose of teams or companies.

A purpose that was defined 3 years ago is unlikely to be fit for purpose today, particularly given how we as people have much higher expectations these days (as employees and as customers). Technology has evolved rapidly, and data is more accessible than ever before. The world is our oyster.

Google is a great example of a company that’s constantly evolved.

Google search bar in 1997–8

Here’s how their purpose has pivoted rightly so over the years to stay relevant:

  • Google Inc. was founded to make it easier to find high-quality information on the web (1998)
  • Google is a privately held and profitable company focused on search services (2001)
  • Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful (2006 to present)
Google search bar in 2018

A day with the team to define our ‘why’

This week I was fortunate enough to be offsite with the team, a brand new team may I add, shaping our purpose and getting to know each other on all levels. For me, this is a super important thing to do, because if you’re just a team at work doing your thing and you don’t know or respect each other properly, how can you trust each other and be honest?

We got to know more about each other and celebrated recent things that had happened; kids starting their GCSEs, marriages, awards, first houses along with things we would never have known about each other. I now know who can’t click their fingers and who took part in a triathlon.

Amongst all of this, we got under the skin of our purpose, the guiding principles that underpin everything.

“Purpose (noun): The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. “ — English Oxford Dictionary

Of course, the legend Simon Sinek was present — sadly not in person, but his awesome TED Talk, which you should definitely watch. We took a leaf out of his book and started with the ‘why’ over the ‘what’ and ‘how’ that most of us lean toward when we’re asked to introduce ourselves. When companies position themselves in terms of ‘what’ and ‘how’, they can easily forget the ‘why’. Simon’s example in the video hits the nail on the head with Apple vs its competitors.

The Golden Circle — Simon Sinek
  • Why — Purpose: What’s our motivation? What do we believe?
  • How — Process: Actions to realize our why
  • What — Result: What do we do? Result of why, proof
Simon Sinek — TED Talk: How great leaders inspire action

Purpose in practice

Here’s just a few examples of companies that I believe genuinely live up to their mission:

  • Slack: Making work simpler, more pleasant, and more productive. Preach. My life without Slack demonstrated everything their purpose isn’t.
  • NatWest: We have a single, simple purpose — to serve customers well. I feel valued as a customer and they constantly enable me to do more myself.
  • Starling: A better bank for everyone. Hallelujah – individual, couple, abroad, business; these guys have proved this in a short time.

Purpose lost and found again

A company that did have a clear purpose was Facebook. In recent years it started to lose its purpose, particularly around the time the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal came to light, but this year the company got back on track by sharing their story, open and honestly.

Likewise, the Starbucks that we know and (most of us) love, went through times of trouble just over a decade ago. They had lost their way and focused on expansion over customers. They forgot why they existed. In March 2008, they aimed to turn their previous ways around and obsess over their customers. They started with ‘My Starbucks Idea’ which opened up their ideas pipeline to customers — a lot of what we experience from Starbucks these days (in and out of their stores) came from customers.

When losing purpose is fatal

And then there are companies that didn’t have a clear purpose or lost it, and they became irrelevant.

  • Blockbuster: Never be without a movie. While I never was without a movie as a kid, times have changed. Customers demanded more flexibility and other means of consuming the content, more choice. Blockbuster didn’t pivot with the times, and now there is only one left.
  • Borders: “We were all working hard towards a different outcome,” said President Mike Edwards. Borders ran away with themselves, they didn’t lift their head above the parapet and take stock of what was going on, they made uninformed decisions on the basis of their executives, all with different visions.

Clarity is everything

It is not just entire companies that should have a purpose; teams should too.

All teams need clarity. Clarity must be at the heart: clarity of your purpose, clarity of your plan, and clarity of who’s responsible for what.

  • Purpose: How can your team members buy into the vision if there’s no set purpose? If you don’t have a clear purpose, what are you? Just a group of people completing tasks without a common goal in mind.
  • Plan: How can your team members effectively plan how they’re going to deliver the purpose? This is the ‘what’. What do you need to do as a team? What roles do you need? Do you have the right people? Do you have the right network around you?
  • Responsibility: How can your team live up to a purpose if nobody knows who’s doing what? You can’t have a team of people scrambling around, you need clear lines of focus. This doesn’t mean team members should not pass tasks around, but ownership is a must.

Sense of team. A real team.

When people come together to make a team, there’s a varied mix of skills, clear accountability, a common purpose and set goals.

Teams don’t just blossom overnight. Especially as teams are increasingly located across multiple locations and flexible working is on the up, the proliferation of tools they need to build relationships and common visions are essential.

Teams in the new age of communication will require intentionality.

Being brave. Taking risks.

Teams can either be up for taking risks or risk-averse — my preference is definitely the former. Of course, these should be calculated risks that don’t cost millions, are back up by data and solid desk research and can result in trailing things in a quick and dirty fashion to validate it early on.

The culture of a team determines if it takes risks and believes in each other and the ideas. This goes back to my point about making sure you’re all on a level where you trust one another and share the same goals.

When the team works, the dream works

There’s a handful of questions to ask yourself and your team when thinking about purpose:

  • Why does our company exist?
  • Why does our team exist?
  • What contribution do we make?
  • How do we make the world a better place?
  • How does our purpose link to the companies future?

When you’ve answered these questions, you can ask the most important one: how do you make sure you come up with something that’s clear, actionable and embedded into the team?

Principles are a great way to delve a little deeper and give the team a series of guiding statements to reflect on in everything they do.

I’d love to hear more about your experience of being part of a team, whether that be a product team, department or division within a company. Is/was it clear? Is it demonstrated at all levels? Have you been part of a team where it’s lacking and it’s impacted you and others area you from achieving your goals? I’m on Twitter over here.

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Chanade Hemming

Chanade Hemming

I write about Product, Teams, Data & CX 🚀