What’s your Team Purpose? You need to make this clear!

A young creative team lean across a large desk to put their hands together in solidarity

This is the third in a series of short articles I am writing to assist leaders create and sustain high performing teams. Whether you are a CEO or a Project Team Leader, creating and maintaining a great team is a constant challenge. These articles are designed to help. The focus today is on clarifying Team Purpose. 

A scenario

The senior IT Leadership team comprised five talented, motivated individuals playing an important role in the strategic transition of the organisation. I asked each individual member how they felt their team was performing, and several commented along the following lines:

“To be honest, I really don’t think of us as a team. We are just a group of people reporting to the same manager. We really don’t work as a team”.

There seemed no sense of common purpose, shared commitment, or feeling they were part of a valuable leadership team. In fact, most of the team’s members saw the whole notion of being part of a leadership team as a bit of a fraud. Team meetings were simply an opportunity to share what they had each been doing. There was little collaboration, hardly any discussion and debate, and a general feeling that team meetings were a waste of time – taking them away from their “real” work with their own teams.  Tension within the team made meetings uncomfortable.

This was not what the executive team or the team leader wanted.

The team leader needed a real team. He wanted a team that exchanged information and worked collaboratively where there were clear interdependencies. He wanted a team that provided each other with support and worked together to leverage their individual knowledge for the maximum benefit of the organisation.  The leader felt the team was under-performing but did not realise just how much of a gap there was between what he needed and wanted and where the team was at.

When I shared some of the team members’ feedback, the team leader was clearly taken aback, but to his credit he was up to the challenge, saying, “OK, not good, so how do we take this forward?”

It all starts with Purpose

As a leader, to create a successful team you first need to be clear about what you want from the team, and you need to ensure the team is equally crystal clear about its purpose and what is expected of it.

The late Richard Hackman, a prominent Harvard researcher, talked about successful teams always having a “clear, challenging and consequential purpose”. (See Leading Teams – Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002).

Without a team having a clear purpose, things tend to go pear shaped.

My own experience working with numerous teams highlights that the root cause of most team dysfunction and poor performance is the lack of clarity and understanding about the team’s purpose (why it exists), what it aims to achieve (its vision), and how it plans to achieve its purpose and vision.

Here I have deliberately introduced the terms for the statements that are used to guide corporations to suggest that teams deserve and need the same thoughtful guidance. As with corporations, without this up-front thinking and planning, a team will never achieve its potential.

Crafting a Team Purpose Statement

So how do you go about creating a clear, compelling, consequential purpose statement that serves to direct and motivate your team in pursuit of its goals?

A good team purpose statement is inspirational and challenging, but also clear, concise, and specific. It has the motivational purpose of committing team members to the team’s goals, while spelling out exactly what the team will be doing in unambiguous, concrete terms.

I recently had the privilege of working with Ruth Wageman, the respected Harvard academic and coach, and she shared an approach to crafting a team purpose statement that I have found to be highly effective.

Wageman advocates that you need to have 3 elements in a good purpose statement:

  • First, you need to spell out concisely and clearly why the team exists, or “This team exists to…”
  • Second, explain the team’s task in concrete terms. What are the key activities the team will work on to achieve its purpose? What are the mission-critical things that can only be done by this team?
  • Finally, you need to explain how the team will be successful, and what will be the beneficial impact of the team’s work on the organisation and its customers. People’s individual commitment to any task is calibrated by how important they perceive that task.

There is probably no single best way to compose a purpose statement. However it is written, as leader you are responsible for ensuring the team understands and buys into it. Ideally, the statement is determined unanimously by all team members to drive commitment and buy-in. Though sometimes it may make more sense for you, as leader, to be directive because your leadership assignment may include specific requirements about the team’s purpose, or you may wish to spell out a clear, not-negotiable purpose for the team. In these circumstances, be careful. Keep in mind the research that shows that while team members may readily commit to a purpose and goals assigned by trusted leaders, that commitment is largely dependent on the leaders demonstrating their own ongoing commitment to the goals.

An illustration

When working with the IT Leadership team I mentioned earlier, the leader chose to allow the team to craft the statement with his guidance and input. He wanted them to “own” the purpose statement and to get their commitment and buy-in.  To illustrate this, they came up with the following team purpose statement:

  1. This team exists to lead and co-ordinate the successful delivery of IT services for the organisation.
  2. By:
      • Co-ordinating activity across our individual teams
      • Developing strategy to leverage appropriate technology
      • Planning and co-ordinating effective implementations
      • Maintaining operational integrity of technology solutions
      • Enhancing the user experience of technology services
      • Facilitating effective communication to stakeholders
      • Supporting each other in relation to our individual leadership challenges

3. So that the organisation delivers on its goals of…(which were drawn from the organisation’s strategy).

The IT leadership team left the session with a new sense of energy and understanding about their purpose as a real team, and acknowledged that they had an opportunity to make a real difference to their organisation if they walked the talk on becoming a real team – and made the best use of their team meetings.

Will this lead to success? We will have to wait and see.

Of course, a team’s purpose statement will evolve over time because crafting it is not a one-off exercise. It is something that needs to be reviewed regularly to consider changes in organisational strategy and external market conditions.

Enjoy your week.



Mark Rosenberg