Teams Work on Purpose. Does your team know yours?

Jerry Folz leads a team of a dozen small business owners who meet monthly to develop themselves as leaders. Every month, Jerry starts his team meeting the same way, by calling on the host to share the team’s purpose. The host, often a new member, invariably jerks to attention. Everyone else smiles knowingly, as they watch the host’s eyes widen, scanning the room for clues. “Um. . . What is it again?” The new team member is a little embarrassed to have forgotten the team's purpose already.

“To help each other get better!” the group calls out in chorus. 

After a few meetings, the new member chants along. Reciting the team’s purpose every month is Jerry’s way of reminding the group where to focus: on each other. It’s a simple device that helps a roomful of independent business owners feel more like a team.

A team can operate without a clear purpose, just as a boat can sail without a rudder. It’s possible, but it makes things harder. That rudderless boat is harder to steer and harder to navigate. It’s harder to make progress and reach your goal. Also, your passengers will probably want to jump ship.

In her research on teams, Amy Climer, PhD, identified purpose as critical to productive teams. “Teams need to have a clear purpose: What are we doing together? Why do we exist?” she said. For some teams, the answers to those questions are obvious. For example: “We’re the marketing team. Our job is to let people know about this product.” For other teams, the answers are not obvious. Amy recalls, “I’ve asked executive teams what their team purpose was, and they could not answer my question. They looked confused. ‘Do you mean the purpose of our organization?’ they asked. ‘No, that’s your mission statement,’ I told them. ‘What’s the purpose of this team? Why do you all meet every week or two?’ I asked them. They couldn’t answer that.”

She continues, “Without a clear purpose, it’s hard to know what work belongs to the team—what’s a priority for the team and what isn’t.” Amy also says that the team’s purpose has to be shared. “Everybody on the team needs to understand it, buy into it, and care about it. If the team leader knows the purpose but team members don’t, that’s not enough. If the team knew it once but has since forgotten, that’s not enough.”

If you have a thinking preference to clarify, you have a distinct advantage when it comes to establishing your team’s purpose, roles, goals, and strategies. Chances are, you’ve thought about those things already. Whereas those of us who avoid clarifying (no judgment) may have avoided pinning those things down. The connection between good clarifying and good teamwork is real. A research study by Gerard Puccio, Shiva Jahani, and Trisha Garwood revealed that leaders who prefer to clarify enjoy a higher level of trust among followers. That’s partly because, when you’re crystal clear on your expectations, roles, deadlines, and resources, people know what they need to do. They know what you expect. They know how to succeed at their work.

You don’t have to like clarifying to lead a good team; you just have to do the clarifying work. One surefire way to do it is to draw up a team charter, which includes elements like purpose, time, scope, members, roles, resources, and deliverables. You can use the prompts at the end of this chapter or the template in your online workbook to make one. A team charter may feel a little prescriptive to those who don’t prefer to clarify, but it sets team expectations and answers a lot of questions before they’re even asked. It ensures that people don’t spend more time wondering what they’re supposed to be doing than actually doing it. That’s the practical side to clarifying purpose. There’s also an inspirational side. You help people see how their daily tasks connect to higher goals that align with the greater vision, values, and mission of the organization. So, they know their work has meaning.

So ask yourself: What is your team’s purpose? How do you state it? Now make sure everyone on the team would say the same thing.

Want to read more about it? This article is an excerpt from Sarah Thurber and Blair Miller's upcoming book, Good Team, Bad Team, due out June 4. Available on Amazon. New call-to-action

Sarah Thurber

Sarah is managing partner at FourSight and the author of Good Team, Bad Team, The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker, Creativity Unbound, and Facilitation: A Door to Creative Leadership. Her work helps teams and leaders think creatively, work collaboratively and achieve innovative results.