Purpose and Community

2 Keys to a More Engaged, Productive Organization

blogimage_purpose-communityWhat’s your purpose?

Who do you share it with?

I believe these two questions point the way forward for creative networkers and successful organizations now and into the future.

Two years ago, while working for a large company, I had the privilege of collaborating with a small team of peers, real internal hustlers, to guide the implementation and use of Agile for a large, multi-year corporate initiative. While this was of course a serious responsibility, it was not our full time job. We were constantly searching for the necessary time to devote to it in order to ensure it would be successful. Despite this challenge, our group’s level of engagement and list of accomplishments was more significant than many of us had seen in a long time.

As I have reflected on this experience in the time since, I have come to realize that something deeper had occurred that led to such results. We had a clear and compelling vision with the autonomy and empowerment needed to make progress quickly. We knew what our unique and important purpose was in the organization. There was a small group of us that were committed to this purpose and beyond that to each other – we even had a secret name for our group and maybe a faux gang sign too. We definitely had that team “ba”.

Since then, the two concepts of Purpose and Community have continued to stand out to me as keys to unlocking greater potential in our organizations.

Purpose

“The capacity for logical thought is one of the things that makes us human. But in a world of ubiquitous information and advanced analytical tools, logic alone won’t do. What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.” ~Dan Pink

At a very young age, we begin talking about who we want to be and what we want to do when we grow up. Recently, I’ve enjoyed observing my niece, not even five years old yet, talk with great passion about food, recipes and being a baker when she grows up. My sister reports that when they go to a bookstore somehow my little niece-with-an-already-discerning-palate always finds her way to the cooking section and begins flipping through books page by page. Whether or not she will one day pursue the culinary arts is of course anyone’s guess – we all know that our career ideas and aspirations sometimes morph and change as we grow older. Ultimately, though, our search for purpose seems to be a constant throughout our lives.

That’s because we want to know that what we do matters.

Some years ago, as a new manager in corporate IT, I struggled with a lack of a sense of purpose. My team was responsible for a variety of important systems and applications but they did not seem to have any real common thread. That was until the day our new boss entered the picture.

Having the benefit of many more years of management experience, he was quickly able to see a common thread running through our systems from both a business and technology perspective. He moved quickly to define our team and its purpose and did so with startling simplicity and clarity. While team performance didn’t radically increase overnight, that clarity of purpose was the beginning of a laser-like focus for us on who we were and what we provided for the organization. It laid the groundwork for increased team engagement and performance in the long run.

That early management experience for me was formative, but my belief in the power of purpose isn’t based solely on my own experiences. More and more we are learning about the science and psychology behind purpose in our work. Recently, published results from a study by The Energy Project and Harvard Business Review showed that purpose was one of our most important needs at work and that when that need is met we are 1.4 times more engaged at work, 1.7 times more satisfied with our job, and more than 3 times as likely to stay with our organizations.

It’s becoming clear that the concept of purpose is quite powerful.

Put simply, purpose cuts to the very core of who we perceive ourselves to be, why we exist and what we should be doing with the very limited time we have given to us. When we understand our purpose and when our work is aligned with that purpose, we are poised to accomplish far more than we previously thought possible.

Having an understanding of the power of purpose, we might consider asking questions like:

  • What is my personal purpose?
  • Is my personal purpose aligned with my professional work?
  • What do my colleagues and team members perceive their purpose to be?
  • What is our team’s purpose within the organization?
  • Is our team’s purpose strongly aligned with our organization’s purpose?

Community

“Organizations are communities of human beings, not collections of human resources”.  ~Henry Mintzberg

Just as we want to know what our purpose is from a young age, we also want to know others and be known by others. We are intrinsically wired for community, for sharing our lives with one another, our joys, our fears, our struggles, our successes. We bond together in family units and share the very core of who we are in these relationships. We come together for all manner of activities in life from athletics to academics to religious worship and more.

Why then do so many of our modern day corporate institutions feel devoid of a sense of community? Might we be settling for less?

It might help to revisit the definition of community:

a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals; a similarity or identity.

If you’re like me, you might have experienced this type of community a handful of times throughout your career. And these are probably the teams and experiences you remember the most fondly and speak of with pride. Typically though we don’t expect this kind of experience in the workplace. We expect and settle for the opposite – lack of meaningful connections, infrequent fellowship, fear and distrust run amok, disparate identities, and conflicting goals.

It seems to me that some significant contributors to this problem are a lack of awareness of the power of community in the workplace and numerous traditional corporate practices that are usually left unquestioned yet undermine or outright prevent the possibility of community. Some examples that come to mind…

  • Regularly creating and then dismantling project teams
  • Assigning workers to multiple project teams
  • Frequently shifting individual and team priorities
  • Vague sense of organizational vision at the team and individual levels
  • Creating individual performance goals that inadvertently pit individuals, teams and departments against one another
  • Treating professional craftsmen and craftswomen as resources, or more bluntly, easily swappable warm bodies
  • Narrowly defining people by their primary skillset (e.g. Java developer) and thereby limiting their growth, creativity and potential contributions

The list could go on.

I think it’s worth exploring what the idea of community means in our workplace because I’ve experienced its immense power on a couple of rare occasions. I’ve witnessed the deeper human meaning derived from work done in community, the improved relationships and collaboration, the lowered stress, and the resulting increases in team and organizational performance. I also continue to read stories and studies from companies like SpotifyBufferZappos, and others who are exploring this same path and experiencing similar results. I think organizations like this are onto something significant in the creative networker age.

If you’re interested in this notion of community, you might consider asking questions such as these:

  • Do I have a strong sense of community in my workplace? Why or why not?
  • If not, what could the idea of community mean and look like in our workplace?
  • How might a stronger sense of community improve our sense of meaning and our performance at work?
  • What might we together achieve if we had a stronger sense of community aligned to a common purpose?
  • What current notions and practices in our workplace might be undermining the possibility of community?

Success in the creative networker age hinges on understanding our purpose and who is in it with us.

What’s your purpose?

Who do you share it with? 


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