Jan 20, 2020

7 min read

Working with purpose

If you were to ask me today what is it I am working on, the answer would be along the lines of:

I work at a tech startup called nPlan. Our main purpose is to empower and inspire people so that they can tackle their challenges differently.

If you seem interested about what I just said, I would go on to explain that:

We work towards our purpose by setting goals that defy our skills, implementing the most efficient solutions, caring deeply, challenging directly, telling the truth (no matter how hard) and always questioning our current knowledge. The main way in which all this comes to life is through our data-driven ML solution that is capable of forecasting delays in mega-construction projects. We are currently working alongside some of biggest names in the industry and we expect to radically change the way in which massive projects are planned in the hopes that they will no longer incur in crippling delays and (consequently) cost explosions.

A bit preachy, I know, but bear with me.

The “WHY, HOW, WHAT” approach [1]

If you have read anything by Simon Sinek [1] you may recognise this as the “WHY, HOW, WHAT” approach, and you’d be right to. As Sinek explains, and we have experienced at nPlan, communicating in this way makes people feel that you are actually trying to make a difference. If they can relate to your purpose, then their brains light up and they want to know more. If they cannot relate to your purpose then it will be a very short conversation, and that is a good thing:why would you spend time explaining what you do to someone who doesn’t care about why you do it?

However, a go-to elevator pitch is only one benefit from working with a purpose. In the following lines I would like to sketch the benefits of having a clearly stated WHY and how this has helped us (nPlan) become more focused.

But first…

Before purpose was written

nPlan has always aimed to build a strong, empowering, positive culture where people could feel challenged and inspired. There was still a problem though: the company culture was different in everyone’s minds. This can be a rather small problem when you are a team of five, but as we started growing in size it became clear that “culture” needed to be defined in less (ahem…) ethereal terms. To illustrate this, here are three questions that we couldn’t easily resolve (assume M < N in all examples):

  • We have N technologies that we want to develop but only enough resources to develop M at the time. Which ones do we develop first?
  • We have N candidates that all excel technically, but we can only make an offer to M of them. How do we make a fair choice?
  • How do we create an environment where everyone in the company is comfortable saying when something is not right?

As we came across “Start With Why” [1], we realised that those tough questions boiled down to one and the same: which solution advances our purpose? The path was clear, we needed to define our purpose, so we started a comprehensive process to “Find Our Why”[2]. After following a purpose workshop, this is what we got:

To empower and inspire others so that they can tackle their challenges differently

(If that sounds familiar it is because you read it at the beginning of the elevator pitch).

nPlan team in the “Find your Why” workshop [2]

nPlan with purpose

We now had a purpose: the most powerful weapon of them all. But how could we bring that purpose to life? A catchy phrase written on the wall was not going to turbo-charge a company, let alone change an industry. The purpose needed to be embedded into the culture in order to guide the company.

Pre-purpose we defined our culture solely by three core values: aim high and run fast, be radically truthful and learn from everything. Our values were already aligned with our WHY! We found our purpose, we didn’t make it up. What we had then were the tools to super-charge these values with HOWs (specific actions) that related to our purpose and guided us on how to achieve it. So, here is HOW we bring our WHY to life:

Set challenges that defy your skills

How do you inspire others? We believe that one way to do that is by doing inspiring work ourselves. So, one of our guiding lights is that our objectives, key results and overall company direction must push the boundaries of our skills.

How does this work day-to-day, you may ask. The answer is simple. Whenever we are coming up with a plan to solve a problem, we make sure that the solution will push us to be better engineers, managers, teams, people. What this creates is a work environment where everyone feels motivated to learn, solutions that are always technically sound and cutting-edge and a team that is constantly growing their skills.

Implement the most efficient solution

There is a catch to constantly challenging yourself, which is that you may never produce a solution because it is so damn hard to get there. So, in order to empower as well as inspire we strive to implement efficient solutions. In the daily work, this means that you are not expected to re-invent the wheel just because it is a challenging endeavour.

Combining challenging objectives with efficient solutions builds our “Aim high, run fast” value. Observe that both things are done simultaneously. By working with these HOWs we can make sure that we are both empowering and inspiring others. What about the remainder of the purpose?

Care deeply and challenge directly

Well, the first part is understanding that the challenges we are solving are not just our challenges but also those of others. Our third HOW comes straight from the lines of Radical Candor [3] and it boils down to understanding the person in front of you, walking a mile in their shoes and actively listening to what they are telling you. Once that first part is done, challenging directly means being able to tell that person how they can improve.

Constructing an environment where everyone is encouraged to practice radical candor results in a very efficient workforce. It means someone will speak up and come up with a solution when something is not working. It also means that there are no politics when someone is not performing well (at any level of the company). We all care about that person and will provide feedback that will make them a better teammate. Radical candor is applied both internally and externally.

Tell the truth, no matter how hard

You can’t empower others unless you are honest and straightforward with them. It may seem a bit odd that “telling the truth” has to be part of our core values. However, the industry that we are currently working on is one where this has to be made clear. Sometimes, telling someone that there is a high chance for their project to be delayed can be extremely difficult. That delay may cost someone their job. So, as part of empowering construction industries to make the hard decisions, we don’t hold back.

These last two HOWs are the center of our second value: “Be radically truthful”. Following this value enables us to build a team that is trustworthy, that corrects mishaps as soon as they happen and that provides information to our clients about their challenges.

Finally, what about that “differently” bit in the purpose statement?

Always question your current knowledge

This last statement is HOW we bring to life our “learn from everything” core value. This, much like radical candor, we practice internally and externally so that everyone can think differently about their challenges.

Internally, questioning our current knowledge means that we are never stuck in a single solution. We gather data that tells us if something is working or not. Questioning makes us push the boundaries of what we know and innovate in our solutions. “What if…?”s are generally followed by “Let’s set up an experiment”s and, more often than not, we encounter pleasant surprises.

Externally, it is imperative that we encourage others to question their knowledge. After all, we are working with an industry that has not changed its ways for a very long time, and as the first company to propose the use of Machine Learning in planning mega-construction projects, we are suggesting a radical change. Convincing our clients that a different approach to planning is the right way to go is not an easy task, but we’re making good progress and have received some great feedback from the industry.

Spread the nPlan word!

I did not want to conclude without saying that culture is not everything: making everything about culture can work against you. We must question everything, even our culture. So, the nPlan culture is a living organism that evolves with the company. More importantly, the people who work in the company are willing to give their 120% to bring the purpose to life and change an industry for the better.

If our purpose and values gave you goosebumps (in a good way), we’d love for you to get in touch: whether it’s to discuss joining our team, doing business with us, or exploring questions in more detail. If you know someone for whom we are a good match, send them our way.

Finally, if you like how we do things, why not share this story? If you found it inspiring, surely someone else you know will. Let’s all spread the word about nPlan!

Thanks to Natalia, Sarah, João, Alan and Dev for proof-reading this story.

References

[1] Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, N.Y.: Portfolio.

[2] Sinek, S. (2017). Find your why: A practical guide to discovering purpose for you or your team. New York, New York: Portfolio/Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.

[3] Scott, K. M. (2017). Radical candor: How to be a kickass boss without losing your humanity (First edition.). New York: St. Martin’s Press.