2 April 2018

What is the purpose of purpose?

The first of W Edward Deming's 14 points for management is to "Create a constancy of purpose".  This is still very relevant today. 

For example, I recently listened to a programme called The Charity Business on BBC Radio 4.  In the third episode we learn that some charities are excellent at raising funds, but their impact is minimal.  We also learn there are other charities that make a huge impact, but are not so good at raising funds.  It means we end up giving money to the charities that are good at pulling on our heart strings and persuading us to donate, while other charities that make a difference go out of business. 

It sounds like some charities focus too much on fund-raising, to the detriment of their original purpose.  This is one reason why constancy of purpose is important – to keep everyone focused on doing the right things. 

Here are four more reasons why purpose is important:

1. Alignment.  In Fourth Generation Management by Brian L Joiner, he uses a diagram similar to the one below to highlight the importance of a clear purpose. 
The top box represents an organisation with no clear purpose.  Teams or individuals end up operating on their own – each pulling in their own direction.  It can result in chaos and dysfunction.  The bottom box represents an organisation where the purpose is clear and meaningful.  Everyone is pulling in the same direction

2. Decision making.  In this 30 second clip, Olympic rower Ben Hunt-Davis explains one of the reasons why his team won gold in Sydney.  During training, every time they had a decision to make they'd ask themselves "Will it make the boat go faster?" 

This was the purpose of their training.  It gave them clarity about what they were there to do – even if it meant missing out on trips to the pub.  Likewise, you can ask "will this help us achieve our purpose of...?" when making those difficult decisions in your organisation.

3. Motivation. In Drive by Dan Pink, purpose is one of his three ingredients of intrinsic motivation.  His research finds that "The most deeply motivated – not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied – hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves".  Later on in the book he also says "If people don't know why they're doing what they're doing, how can you expect them to be motivated to do it?"

4. Measurement.  Purpose defines what your organisation exists to do.  If you don't have measures that relate to purpose, how will know how well the organisation is performing?  John Seddon puts it nicely with this diagram:
If measures are derived from purpose, it allows you to experiment and innovate with method.  You use your measures to see if your efforts are improving your achievement of purpose.  The mistake a lot of organisations make –  which I'll talk about in a future post – is when measures start with an arbitrary number instead of purpose. 

In my next post I'll share the most important lesson I've learned about defining the purpose of a service.  In the meantime, feel free to comment below, or share this with someone you think could be interested.


  1. Lovely. I think constancy of purpose also comes through identifying what is common between us that drives us - values. I've been thinking lately that words can be difficult to align around sometimes but feelings - how we feel about what we do - may be a bit easier. I haven't had the opportunity to test it yet.

    1. Thank you Elizabeth. Would be interesting to find out how I goes when you do have the opportunity to test it. You might find this interesting:


  2. Viewed as a 'system', all organisations have a "purpose". It just might not be the intended purpose. POSIWID applies. Improving organisations is not so much about being clear about the intended purpose (although this is important), but acting on observed behaviour. This requires careful thought re. method and any measures used.

    1. Thank you for your advice Tim. Yes - I completely agree. I've often found the POSIWID is some variation of 'make the numbers look good'.

    2. Speaking of POSIWID, I had fun with a service that thought it's purpose was to provide excellent infrastructure. When you talked to them for any length of time, it was clear that the actual purpose was 'don't get successfully sued'. This often overlapped with good infrastructure, but the drive was don't get sued.

    3. Thanks Charis - great example!