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  • Writer's pictureSimon Flower

Purpose drives project success - why purpose is important !

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

Purpose gets a lot of airtime these days, especially when it comes to employee motivation. Dan Pink has been highly influential in this discussion, with his thoughts on Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose being the three intrinsic motivators for high performance, where an understanding of the bigger picture and a belief we're working on something larger and more important than ourselves helps generate engagement and higher productivity.

But what happens when we turn our focus to projects and business transformation?

Connecting with the purpose of a project sits at the very heart of success

The purpose of a project is fundamental to driving the most appropriate approach as well as building high performing teams. Lets explore these ideas in a little more detail.

Purpose drives the most appropriate approach to achieve project success.

Many years ago I was asked to help a client with a global service improvement project. The scene had already been set. The team had been picked for their expertise in the services this client provided. The diagnostic phase had started. But when I started to dig, it became clear that the leadership team really wanted to save cost. Its no surprise then that they were disappointed when the results of the investigation were entirely focused on improving service! They had hoped (and assumed) that cost saving opportunities would naturally emerge as the investigation progressed, without taking account of the fact that every aspect of the project with its data collection and analysis was entirely geared to achieve the results that had been specifically asked for. A hard lesson was learnt during that early investigation - you have to be both clear and honest. You can't address the purpose obliquely.

When it comes to business transformation, there are two frequent drivers of a project which are in apparent conflict; service / performance improvement and cost reduction. Both are often required but they both have quite different approaches which are not easily delivered together, so in what order should they be tackled? To help address this question, I like to think of them in the context of effectiveness and efficiency:

Effectiveness = doing the right thing

Efficiency = doing it at lowest cost.

We can immediately see, by inference, that if we tackle efficiency first we may well end up finding the lowest cost way of doing the wrong thing. Sometimes, expediency is the greatest driver for improving investor returns, in which case we may have no choice but to opt for cost reduction, but with enough time and planning, I would always suggest tackling the service / performance problem first.

Over the years, I have seen this debate played out in many Boards across many sectors. Cost reduction is often the primary driver, but if service is not good (either for customer experience or short lead-time, on-time delivery of goods for example), then by the time the cost focused activities are generating results you may have lost more customers which in turn increases the need for promotional marketing activity or further cost reduction. Addressing cost first has the potential to be the thin end of the wedge. On the other hand, if service is addressed first, we will improve customer experience / retention and create positive opportunities for market growth, which may reduce the need for cost reduction. Having built a solid foundation upon which to the drive down costs, we can now take our time and ensure the right interventions are made which maximizes the shareholder value of both sets of activities.

The critical point here is - no matter how you chose to structure the project, be clear as to its purpose and ensure the specific objectives, measures of success, team composition, activities and governance are all aligned to achieve this.

Purpose helps build high performing teams.

With the project purpose clear, we can now start to build the team. Returning to Dan Pinks insights on motivation, we can use purpose as a tool to help engage the team and build personal commitment. Which project leader would want team members who didn't believe in the point of the project they were being asked to support?

We can go a lot further than this high level alignment however. The following steps should be considered:

  1. Check alignment with the purpose when selecting team members.

  2. Hold workshops to explore the purpose of the project, its specific objectives and targets. Allow the team members to be part of designing the approach, the specific activities and the plan. Have them consider and evaluate risks as well as how they would overcome them.

  3. Allow the team members, both individually and collectively, to explore their roles within the team, their boundaries and the scope of their work. Make adjustments where necessary. They can now help to develop a more robust overall plan for the project. Before you know it, they are developing a degree of Autonomy in their roles. Its important that you don't let this go too far or you create anarchy, but the right level of input without exception builds engagement.

  4. Finally, as a project leader, explore one fundamental question with each team member before you get started - ask the question "what do YOU want to get out of this project?" This strikes at the heart of aligning a team members personal purpose with that of the project. In my experience its a question that is frequently overlooked, partly perhaps because its a double edged sword. Once asked, there is an expectation that something will happen as a result, so take it seriously. Draw up a personal contract between yourself and each team member. (Note for larger teams that have workstream leaders for example, this activity can be delegated and cascaded through the project team, but ensure it happens). I see every project as an opportunity to learn and develop, and team members usually ask for something pretty sensible; a junior member might want to understand another part of the business to the one they work in, in which case maybe they can be given some tasks in the appropriate workstream (under supervision). Someone with more experience may want the chance to manage another team member, which could perhaps be enabled at a later stage of the project. Team members already at managerial levels can coach others but may want the chance to present to the leadership team for the first time. All these types of development opportunities fit naturally into projects. And so finally we have supported Mastery, the last of Dan's three key drivers of motivation!

In conclusion, the idea of Purpose is often not explored enough in setting up and defining projects, but when it is, the rewards can be significant with clarity and a laser focus on what matters, by a team who believe in the work and want to deliver it. Who wouldn't want that?

This is part of our series; ViewPoint on Transformation.

To find out more, please follow the link to buy and read my book on successful business transformation.

I've never been a great fan of large business text books, so this is a story, based on many experiences during a career defined by business performance improvement and the wild and varied projects that enable it.

Alternatively, feel free to reach out as per the contact details below.



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