RAMPS – Ways to Affect Purpose

RAMPS: Affecting Purpose

Raising a sense of purpose — service to a "greater" — in someone who’s sensitive to it, involves offering purposes and then connecting to them.

I try not to frame these muses as mere critique. This one’s hard for me to pull off. Clumsy ham-handed misleading efforts at motivating people via purpose are the norm, not the exception, and I’ll give it to you straight up: one gets a little pissy about it after a while. 🙂

(Okay, Geeps, just take deep breaths. You can do this. Take the aggravation and reframe it as positive advice. It’s easy. You got it. This is fine. This is going to be fine. We’re fine.)

I try to seek both multiplicity and diversity in the purposes we offer to the individuals around us. Both of those words matter. We want many available purposes. And we want them to be different from each other.

The most common scenario one sees in an organization is the selection of one big overriding purpose, and underneath it a host of instrumental purposes, likely each of them with further sub-instrumental purposes attached, forming a nested hierarchy.

The idea is that we’re all part of one thing, that one thing is really Important[tm], it can be decomposed hierarchically into many things, and then the lucky motivate-ee’s can plug themselves in until all the purpose-slots are covered.

Most of us, here or there, have experienced being on a team unified this way. And anyone who’s done it knows how incredibly potent such unity can be. Over-simple narrative forms — I’m looking at you, TV — play this card all the time and reinforce its power.

Unified-purpose teams are great. They’re a powerful & fulfilling experience. I hope you’ve had a few.

They are also rare, short-lived, unforced, and I know this will sting, remembered chiefly on the unusual occasions where they win, not the common ones where they lose.

The first issue is just finding a unified "greater" that is actually experienced by everyone around you as a greater. The overwhelming majority of companies have the greater purpose of a) continuing and b) securing the fortune of their investors. These are not of broad appeal.

The second issue is fragility. If we have a single unified purpose, and things go south — when we’re not just doing powerpoint slides, things go south fairly often in fairly unpredictable ways — unified-purpose teams tend to implode rather than flex.

The third issue is the kidding of ourselves — not to say lying, exactly — required when we don’t have a unified "greater", so we make up a slogan and try to shoehorn everything we’re about into it. "Greater" nearly always has a moral distinction for people, & this kills it.

So, no. We can want one purpose, and we can keep our eyes open for it, and we can certainly take advantage of it when it appears, but we don’t want to stake everything on one purpose.

Here’s a quick true story.

My first ever official coaching gig, and I was happily forcing my victims to pair all day, and it was going, mmmm, "okay", except for this one person, K, who seemed willing to do everything except pair.

So I paired with her a time or two, and it went quite well. But she still avoided it like the plague. One afternoon, we were pairing, and I asked her about it.

This woman had a lot going on. Powerful impostor syndrome, a son in and out of trouble with the police, a landlord who was trying to evict her, and — at seven o’clock that evening she had to turn in an English paper, and she’d never written one.

It’s two in the afternoon. Her paper is a five-pager about Shakespeare’s first sonnet, "From fairest creatures we desire increase…"

So I was like, shiiiiit, we only got four hours, we need to get started right now. I popped open word, hit the browser for the text, and — after a moment of startled confusion — we wrote that paper. She turned it in, got an A- by the way.

Think about purpose. I was sitting there in that moment with a whole stack of instrumental purposes, "get K to pair" under "install XP" under "succeed at my job" under "feed my family". And we could frame "easily help a stranger with a problem" that way, as a further instrument.

It did in fact probably benefit that big stack of instrumental purposes. I also made some new rules for her the next day, pairing only w/me and another teammate who was a natural mentor, only pair in the afternoons, and so on.

But I didn’t help her with her paper to get her to do XP. That purpose just wasn’t even in play. I was serving another purpose: "be kind", and lest I come off entirely saintly, "be kind especially when it’s easy for you to do." (I can write me some English papers, yo.)

And that’s the second word of that pair, multiple and diverse. Humans are walking bundles of "greater". Most of us give service to "greaters" all the time.

So that’s the first piece of advice: offer lots of purposes, not just one, and make them different, really different, not just nested.

That story also illustrates the second piece of advice. It isn’t enough to offer purposes, even multiple ones, you have to connect the purpose-sensitive person to the "greater" that works for them, in the closest most direct way you can.

XP is a faraway goal. As much as I loved coaching it, as misguided as I was when I was a young coach, too, even then I knew that XP was at least as much an idea about change and community as it was any detailed set of technical practices.

So there’s a lot of air between me and the idea of XP, a lot of abstraction.

But K, sitting right next to me freaking out about failing her English composition class, well, hell, she was right there, right in front of me. I could effortlessly connect my action to my purpose.

A routine part of unified corporate purpose is "make the customer’s life better". (See kidding ourselves, above.) That, to the extent it’s honored, is a fine purpose. It’s quite capable of motivating a purpose-sensitive person to great heights of energy and enthusiasm.

But oddly, those same companies often erect massive barriers between these two people, the one making life better and the one whose life will be made better.

Those of my following makers who are product specialists will recognize that. I know of organizations in which even the product owner is not permitted to interact with anyone using the product.

The "greater" is fine. The motivate-ee is fine. But if we don’t connect them? No go.

There are a lot of idols-of-the-schema type arguments justifying this practice of separating maker from user. What they seem to miss is that the further one’s action is from one’s purpose, the less motivational value that purpose carries.

To take E.M Forster completely out of context: "Only connect."

Every purpose that’s right in front of me is one I can use to energize my work. Every purpose that’s disconnected from me is just so much blah-blah-blah motivational poster.

So that’s it for now. When I see a purpose-senitive individual lacking in motivation, I think about how to offer them many possible and different "greaters", and I think about how to directly connect their action to the "greater" that they value.

It’s Thursday. Got a tutorial for a gee-kid learning C++ here in a minute.

Helping him with his homework serves a whole lot of very different "greater"s for me. I hope you get to work on a bunch of different purposes today, too, ones as important to you as this kid is to me.


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