Purpose As Motivator: The P in RAMPS

Part [part not set] of 15 in the series RAMPS

Purpose is the P in RAMPS. Purpose as motivator is about the sense an individual has that she’s contributing to a greater mission shared by many.

Both attributes matter: mission must be of a higher order than any individual’s whim, & it must be felt to be shared by the whole team. Purpose is really always purposes. Seen "from above", it resembles a sloppily drawn cross-section of a stem, a larger (sloppy) boundary, decomposed into smaller (sloppy) circles, some nearly concentric, some nearly side-by-side, and so on.

Like such a stem, it serves the role of distributing nutrients throughout the team.

We mentioned "belonging" when we talked safety, and it raises its head again here. Purpose is the second pillar of the sense "i belong". Purpose helps explain our world: ourselves, the problem, its solutions, not just to others but to ourselves, too. Purpose is the frame through which we see our own portrait. If its ugly, we’re ugly. If it’s fuzzy, we’re fuzzy. If poorly lit, we’re dark.

As a manager, purpose has the most ready control. It’s as if the knobs for purpose were larger, centered in my dashboard. Sadly, the bright dials and sure-grip knobs are something of an illusion. Managing purpose is as much an art as with the other RAMPS ideas.

Let’s talk about a few common flaws in the structures of purpose in an organization.

The first is an ordinary (if astonishing) human faculty going awry: the faculty of decomposition. My organization is large. My aspiration, my highest purpose, is both large and quite abstract. It can be said in a single sentence, usually. My team, and its individuals, are tiny by comparison. To bridge that abstraction gap, we must decompose purpose. And it can go quite wrong.

Remember we mentioned that stem-looking cross-section? I mentioned specifically its sloppiness. There’s a larger enclosing boundary, within it are smaller ones, some nearly aligned, some nearly entirely separate, some 50/50 overlapped.

The first common mistake of the would-be purpose architect: to think one great big circle is enough. Purpose here, is the grand one-sentence abstraction that sounds like overly verbose ad copy. It’s a great big tube, w/ empty cross-section. It’s simply not close enough to the ground. Orgs like this are usually hopelessly random in their actions. And possessed of low morale.

Another failure of purpose, is to populate the interior of our cross-section with a million perfectly designed same-size sub-purposes. Think of this as like giving every tiny sub-team of 3 people a completely separate purpose from every other sub-team. It makes your org not an org, just a large collection of small groupings. Same effect: random action and low morale.

Somewhere between those two extremes is a sweet spot. Larger purposes loosely shape and contain smaller ones, and so on. Even here, tho, idols of the schema can raise their ugly well-projected "it’s-just-logical" head. The stem metaphor falls apart a little: in real life, those tubes and tubes of tubes don’t form firm boundaries, nor should they.

We edge away from the woody stem towards the brain stem. There are broad groupings or functional areas in your brain. But they’re loose as hell. No area of your brain is really entirely disconnected from the others. Not only do they interact at the borders, but they also reach across huge distances, connecting entirely "separate" functional areas in bizarre & delightful ways. It is quite literally the anti-org-chart. So, with the purposes that provide flow across your orgs.

So. Enough theory. What kind of advice can we give to managers — teams lacking urgency — around the motivator of purpose?

First. Your individuals must be conversant with all the nested purposes in which they live up to that great mission statement above. Second, they need to be conversant with how they fit with their most-immediate purpose-neighbors as well.

Achieving these certainly starts with direct education and consistent language. Explain it, for crying out loud. Often. The same way. Then, make sure the boundaries between purposes that are most frequently in contact are highly permeable.

How can you do that? Roll team members across those borders, formally and informally. And encourage them when they do it themselves. The classical up-the-chain-over-and-down-the-chain approach of hierarchical control is a real purpose-breaker. You want to avoid it.

Consider building real structures to move people from purpose to purpose — especially people you think will become your leaders. A formal exercise, "chartering", can be a useful start. Google "team charter" and read most of the first page of links for ideas.

Another piece of advice: be careful not to conflate purpose with either metric or instrument.

Purpose doesn’t tell us how we’ll know when we’re achieving. That’s what metrics do. And purpose doesn’t know tell us how we will achieve it, either. That’s what instruments do. We may have to have both metric and instrument — we probably will. But we don’t have to move to them insensibly.

Such movement is called ‘slippage’. We slip from a difficult to assess thing to an easier one. We slip from a problem to a solution. A key: DECLARE SLIPPAGE. That is, when we move from, say, "what we want," to "how we will do it," hand-wave the move, every time. We’re entering a new mode of thought when we do this. By handwaving it, we signal the transition, and open ourselves to idea generation.

Similarly with metric. "what we want" might be "happier customers". "how we’ll tell" might be any number of variant techniques. When we move from purpose to metric or purpose to instrument, make a big deal out of it.

Finally? You’ll hate this. Give up this deadline business altogether.

A deadline isn’t a purpose. It usually isn’t even an instrument. It’s just a metric most of the time. There are people who are motivated by deadlines. And others who are not, or who are even de-motivated by them. If your team lacks a sense of urgency, I bet they don’t lack a sense of deadline. They just think it’s unreachable or undesirable.

There are myriad ways to organize your work and predict your future and win that don’t involve deadlines at all. As a manager, a big part of your job is actually finding and using these. As an executive, it’s most of your job.

Parting shot: to get to a purpose that will motivate your team, get your team to help discover & refine it.

Purpose is the ideas & language through which your team sees themselves, as individuals & teams, the brushstroke of their self-portrait.

A team that sees itself working to a worthy mission is a team that’s suffused with a sense of urgency.

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