May 27th, 2016
A client business of mine provides IT support to SMEs. They do it well, are liked and trusted by their clients and the business is profitable. We were discussing their five year plan, for which knowing what the business is about is pretty important.
Now, many business owners, if they’re asked what the purpose of their business is, will answer “to make money” (or similar). There isn’t anything to object to in that answer other than to ask “is it a useful purpose?”, “is it helpful?” But, suppose a business wanted to make more money. There is nothing in that description of purpose which would give a clue how to do that.
A more useful approach would be to consider “making money” as an entirely valid outcome of achieving their purpose.
My client said the business’s purpose was “to provide high quality support within the terms of the service level agreement”. An interesting answer – but is it a good purpose? It certainly could be a valid purpose, but surely it is a description of what the business does. It’s the thing they do which, if they do it well, will achieve their purpose.
In the end, they decided that the purpose of their business was: to enable their customers to continue to trade in the event of a technical failure.
That was the problem their customers paid them to solve, or better, to avoid. Whether the client was running an online shop, or they needed to print a proposal to send to a prospect, if the computer went down, there would be an adverse effect on the business.
With this definition of their purpose, it was easy to see how they could grow the business, and they soon moved into providing telecommunications support.
Purpose may not be what you think it is
It is essential not to confuse purpose with outcomes. The outcomes, or objectives, of a business or project are the things we want to have happen as a result of achieving the purpose of the project: they aren’t its purpose.
A purpose is the answer to the question, “why are we doing this?” Clearly, by this token, “increase sales”, for example, is really an outcome. But how often do we answer the question, “what is the purpose of X?”, with “to achieve outcome Y”? As in, “What is the purpose of my business?” Answer, “To make money”.
A very good exercise goes as follows: if you answer that the purpose of X is A, then ask yourself, isn’t A really an outcome? Even if you don’t think it is, ask yourself, if it were an outcome, what would the purpose really be?
The third component to this model is: actions.
The actions are what you say in a meeting, do in a business, and so on, which are designed to achieve the purpose which – if it is achieved – will secure the outcomes.
In the case study above, the business originally mistook “to provide high quality support within the terms of the service level agreement” as its purpose when, of course, it is the actions they take to achieve some other purpose. That purpose being “to enable their customers to continue to trade in the event of a technical failure”.
There is an implied point that the reason the business was successful was that it provided “high quality support…” etc well.
In summary, the business:
- provided IT support services to SMEs (the actions),
- so that their clients could continue to trade in the event of an IT failure (the business’s purpose)
- which resulted in healthy profits, growth of the business, nice cars parked outside and so on (the outcomes).
Important. The purpose of a meeting, say, is likely to be different from your purpose in attending the meeting, which is likely to be different from others’ purposes in attending. These are unlikely to be the same. If this isn’t acknowledged, the meeting will be rambling, unfocussed, unnecessarily long and possibly an unpleasant experience.
Tips on defining purpose and outcomes
1. Any business, project, job, meeting, conversation, holiday, etc, can have only one purpose at any one time. If it looks as if there are two, then one of three things is the case:
a) the purposes are in fact the same thing, but expressed differently
b) one purpose is a subset, a special case, of the other so, again, there is only really one purpose
c) the business, or whatever, is literally at cross purposes. It is like a sledge being pulled by two teams of huskies, each in a different direction. At best, progress is slow and, in all probability, people end up by being torn by conflicting demands, creating stress and inefficiency.
2. There can be more than one outcome at a time.
3. The business can have a purpose and outcomes and you can have a purpose and outcomes, which will almost certainly be different. It’s important to define both and, particularly for business owners, not to confuse the individual’s purpose with that of the business.
4. Purpose and outcomes don’t have to be ‘clever’ or ‘unique’. In fact, the more simply they are stated, the better.
After a corporate career with BT, Marks and Spencer and in IT consultancy, Jeremy Marchant joined international coaching firm, Shirlaws. He later set up his own coaching business and, after a few years, launched the emotional intelligence at work brand. He is a certified NLP master practitioner and is a partner in Synatus, a nationwide group of some 150 senior level consultants, interim managers, coaches and trainers.
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