Clarity of purpose
Posted on Sep 21st, 2021

When we face a question starting with a "why" we usually answer by focusing on our goals. We describe our actions or plans and relate them to what we want to achieve. There are also times when we approach this differently. We talk about a purpose to justify our opinion. A goal and a purpose might seem to be synonymous, however each word has a completely distinct sense.

In Journey to the East, a short novel by Hermann Hesse, a diverse group of pilgrims consisting of musicians, artists, scientists, philosophers and even fictional characters sets for a long walking trip to "the East". While the route of their travel and the end goal is the same, each member of the group has their individual purpose for it. A treasure hunter is looking to acquire a noble treasure, another member of the group is after catching a certain snake, to which he attributes magical powers and the main character is in a search of a beautiful mystical princess. They spend their days together in exactly the same way moving from one place to another, but due to the difference in purposes for each of them the journey has a unique meaning.

At the same time, people with unrelated goals can have one shared purpose. For example, two athletes might perform their training differently — one might have a goal to improve speed, while another one might exercise to increase strength. Despite the different goals, these two athletes share the same purpose — winning tournaments.

But can't we call "winning tournaments" a goal as well? Maybe purpose is just a higher-level goal? Well, that is not the case. For the athletes it doesn't make sense to set a goal to win tournaments. Winning tournaments is what they are naturally supposed to aim for. In fact they have no choice, they have to show their best on every tournament. That comes from the definition of an athlete.

Talking about goals, objectives, missions and even visions we use the metaphor of a journey. It's always about moving from the point A to the point B. It's about a change in time. This is different when it comes to a purpose. A purpose is something that exists here and now. It is something about identity and definition of what it belongs to. The very names of things often come from the purposes they serve. When we think about moving towards our goals we ask ourselves "where are we". When we think about our purpose we ask "who are we", "what is our role".

We have many tools that help communicate and track progress towards goals. In organisations we apply outcome based approaches like OKR as well as output based ones like KPI. There is a variety of GTD systems for individual goals. But there is often way less focus on capturing and sharing purposes of teams, organisations, roles, products, processes etc. At the same time lack of a clear purpose can be way more destructive than failing some goals.

Defining a purpose of something clearly is not as simple as describing its function. A purpose is always contextual. A book can serve us as a source of information when we read it, or as a safe storage if we keep a secret note between its pages. That's why it is important to communicate both the context and the function when describing a purpose. These two aspects determine the other properties that matter. For example, if we are using a book as a safe storage we probably don't care about its content, all we want to know is its title and the number of the page where the secret note is kept. And in contrast, in a more traditional scenario, if we are using that book for reading, we do care about its content and there's no more a special page number to remember to find a secret note.

One area where clarity of purpose plays a crucial role is an alignment within teams and organisations. An alignment around a purpose is always much stronger than aligning only around goals. Jurriaan Kamer is an organisation designer who studied the day to day work of Formula 1 teams. In his article he mentions that there is just one question that serves as a guide for over 800 people involved in creating a racing car. That question is "Will it make the car go faster?". The speed of a racing car directly translates into the purpose of a Formula 1 team — winning races.

From the French expression raison d'être to the Japanese concept of ikigai, our cultures and languages have elaborate ways of communicating how we balance our lives around a purpose. For companies as well it is vital to find the right balance between their purpose and profit. Profit itself by all means cannot be the purpose. There must be something else that justifies the existence of an organisation. Having a clarity of purpose helps companies stay consistent. At certain points profit or growth need to be sacrificed in order to stay true to a bigger purpose. We can see this kind of consistency in the most of our favourite institutions around the world.

There are many benefits of having the purpose-oriented mindset in addition to the goals-oriented worldview. For me personally, the most valuable product of understanding this duality is the Mastery over Success principle. It is about aiming for mastery rather than success. Not feeling extremely bad about every single failure. And not excessively celebrating every single success. It means always remembering the purpose, which is mastery. Mastery is the ability to reproduce success repeatedly.

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