Why your work needs to be purpose-driven

Grace loves roadside clean-up. What dog doesn’t enjoy exploring stinky trash? She and I may have different motives but we had a shared purpose in our task, which made the project successful and (mostly) enjoyable for us both. Though I believe she had a better time than I did!

Purpose-driven work might sound like something for non-profits or companies that have some specific do-good mission. But as I was reminded this week, every person and every organization needs work that has a purpose. Working with a shared purpose is an enormous factor as to whether or not your project (no matter how worthy) gains traction or get blocked.

On Wednesday, I attended the annual conference hosted by New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility. The event always offers me new perspectives and inspiration and this year was no different. Everyone was buzzing about the content delivered by the morning keynote presenter, Leith Sharp, Director of Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership at Harvard.

Simplest of projects have the same issues as more complicated ones

In her talk, Leith shared amazing stories of her journey at Harvard. There were multiple examples of projects she worked to implement, ultimately taking Harvard to become the largest green campus organization in the world, These situations were of varying scope and complexity. Her opening story illustrated how the simplest of endeavors — replacing light bulbs in one campus facility — is not always quick and easy. “How many people at Harvard does it take to change a light bulb?” she quipped. Apparently, quite a lot! It’s not because the people at Harvard aren’t top of their game nor because people didn’t care. We’ve all been in situations with smart people and worthy efforts, yet the momentum stalls. It boils down to a shared purpose (or lack thereof!).

Having a shared purpose is a foundation for getting things done

So what is a shared purpose? The dictionary has several definitions for the word ‘purpose’. They include the following: ‘the reason for which something exists or is done, made, or used,’ and ‘an intended or desired result or goal’ and ‘determination; resoluteness.’ When we apply these dictionary meanings to how we work on projects–as in sharing a purpose–it’s easy to see the implications. When just one person is at cross-purposes, roadblocks creep into the way and things go haywire. 

On the other hand, when there is alignment of all the players, as to the goals, authority, safety, and risks for all, then things move forward. Even when there is a hiccup (and there will be!), people with a shared purpose will work together to fix it instead of remove themselves from the solution.

Establishing shared purpose

The process for establishing shared purpose happens multiple times throughout the life of a project. Don’t be misled thinking it’s a one-and-done endeavor. As demonstrated by Leith’s volume of examples, implementation of even the best ideas will stray from their course for a number of reasons. Employees may feel insecure in offering ideas, managers may be uncomfortable making a bold decision, or a leader may not understand the consequences of mandating a particular action.

Leith’s point is that you need to continue establishing the shared purpose throughout the life cycle of the project, despite these hurdles, Accept that twists and turns will happen, address them, and move forward until you hit the next stopping point. Learn from the squiggly lines, she said. Don’t expect things to follow a straight path.

It’s tempting to throw up your arms and walk away when things get messy. But that’s exactly when you should dig in more. Establish the shared purpose and when it gets muddled or mucky, seek help from others to find it again. When you do, you’ll witness your project outcomes soar instead of squander.

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