A Hierarchy of Doing, Chapter 1: The Hierarchy of Purpose

Hi folks,

I’ve got to admit, I’m excited. This has been a LONG time coming. This post is a draft of the first chapter of a book I’ve been working on for many months (where working mostly equals thinking strongly about doing).

If you can sit through and read this (it’s not as long as you might think) I would love to have some feedback.

I don’t have illustrations yet and you’ll have to use your imagination with the case studies that need to be written. When it comes to the latter I will be looking for people with relevant stories who would like to contribute some of their wisdom to this book. If you’ve got a story to share please let me know.

Thanks for your time,

Why purpose? Why ‘why’? Why should we care about why we are doing things?
Hidden Truths
Let me start with a thought experiment. If you visit a member of your organisation and ask why they are working on a particular task, what do you think they might say? ‘Because I was told to’? ‘Because I’ve always done this’? ‘Because month end is coming up’?
How many times do you think you need to ask before someone says ‘to achieve X because of the team’s/department’s/organisation’s current goals/vision’.
That’s a mouthful, likely no-one will ever say that. But how many will think about how their tasks relate to the greater goals around them, yet alone choose to vocalise it.
It’s much easier to focus on what needs doing or how it should be done. The problem is that we achieve what we set out to achieve. So if we choose to focus on how something gets done, that is what will be optimised, potentially at the expense of the actual objective.
On the other hand, how often have you heard someone say something like ‘I want this moved from here to here’ when what they really want is improved production or maybe just a better view. By skipping the why and jumping straight to the what it’s possible to deliver exactly what was asked for and miss an opportunity to solve the real problem.
The Big Missing Picture
If people don’t know why they are undertaking their tasks it can result in a tug of war. Each person is pulling in their own direction, looking to fulfil their own objectives plus what they see as the greater organisation’s directives, to whatever degree they are motivated to uncover and follow them. This can lead to the analogy of a tug of war, or a rowing boat spinning in circles.
Making the objectives clear won’t guarantee that people will pull in the same direction (we are all individuals after all) but, vitally, it opens up the opportunity to go in a common direction.
Getting Aligned
Even better than ‘simply’ making sure that everyone understands the organisation’s goals is to hire people whose personal values and objectives are compatible. The more personal interests mesh with those of the organisation the lower the friction. It’s too late to start this with the current staff but it can help retain the right people.
The Bottom Line
In these days of Return on Investment and focus on the bottom line, getting aligned can be a hard-sell. Some might not see the benefit of super aligned teams. But how about sales?
‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’ – Simon Sinek.
Share the reasons for your organisation’s existence. What does it stand for? What does it hope to achieve? Get your message out there and you can find customers.
Why is Purpose First?
Out of the triumvirate of purpose, practices and projects why is purpose the first chapter?
A Compass
I believe that Purpose should be the rudder, the North Star and the Oracle. In case of doubt of approach or selection of tasks or projects, the organisation’s vision and goals should provide direction. It should guide all other decisions be it in the domain of marketing, recruitment, product development, investment or human resources.
It’s not so much that by considering Purpose first every other decision will automatically fall into place; it’s not that easy. It’s more to say that this will minimise later decisions falling out of place.
The Head of the Family
This is almost the same statement as the one above but I think it’s worth repeating. The hierarchy of doing will be introduced later but suffice to say for now that Purpose belongs at the top. As in any good hierarchy, all other things (Practices and Projects) below the top derive and depend on it and feed information back up to the top.
[[An illustration would be awesome here]]
The Hierarchy of Purpose
What do I mean by ‘Purpose’ anyway?
I see Purpose, with a capital P as a hierarchy. At the very top of the hierarchy sits the vision. This represents what the organisation stands for, why it exists. This might be a noble goal like saving the world or curing cancer. The goal might be selfish: the organisation might only exist to make money (in this day and age that seems sadly likely). Most likely it will be something in between.
To an extent it doesn’t matter what the vision is (legal and moral issues notwithstanding) as long as it is honest. It can be tempting to fake a vision but ultimately that will only lead to issues. Better off not having a vision at all than being false about it.
The vision could be a simple statement or a composite. I would suggest though that if people can’t easily hold the whole vision in memory or repeat it without relying on rote then it should be simplified. It behoves the organisation to facilitate the deep understanding and integration of the vision into its members minds (and hearts if you can manage it).
While open to change the vision will be largely static. The vision doesn’t have to be achievable. In some ways I think it’s better if it isn’t. On the other hand, it has to be something that can be worked towards. It should be possible to show progress towards the vision, and that’s where goals fit in.
Where the vision holds the top of the hierarchy of purpose, goals fill up the middle. Unlike the vision, goals should be achievable. They might also be temporary, replaced as they are achieved, or due to the influence of external conditions, or following direction changes. Sometimes there will be a blurry line between the vision and the goals. That’s fine, as long as a definite decision is made: there is no right answer, only what fits.

Just as the vision is broken up into goals, goals may themselves be divided into sub-goals.
Objectives can be found at the lowest points of the hierarchy. There is a very fine continuum between goals and objectives. Objectives are simply concrete and temporary goals.
[[Time for another illustration]]
Footer for illustration –
Each objective forms part of one or more goals and each goal applies to one or more constituents of a higher-ranked goal or the vision itself. Looking at it from the other direction, the vision is broken down into multiple goals and each goal is then potentially broken down into multiple goals and objectives.
Drawing the Lines
If you prefer definite lines and definitions here’s one possible way to look at the hierarchy, through the lens of SMART (if you’re not familiar with that term a quick internet search for ‘SMART objectives’ should do the trick). The vision is Specific (and potentially Measurable). Goals should be Specific, Measurable and Achievable. Objectives should be SMART.
Practising Purpose
A guide to using and applying purpose.
This one is so important that it is an acronym for the five traits taken together. Flowery language has its place in the world but it’s vitally important that everyone can not only understand the purpose of the organisation but can intuit how to apply it in practice in their daily work. The vision should be short and snappy. Goals and objectives should be written in as plain language as possible (obviously at some point, especially with objectives, things will get technical but the suggestion remains).
It doesn’t matter how much thought has been put into the purpose. If people can’t understand it, it won’t work.
In today’s technological environment it’s unlikely that the whole hierarchy of purpose will be stored in one place. The vision might be on the internet and/or intranet. Goals might be held in a project roadmap document and objectives in some form of project management software. That is a pain but not insurmountable. The important thing is that it must be possible to traverse the hierarchy. There must be a way to go from the vision down to its constituents and also to follow objectives and goals up to their ancestors.
To get the full power of purpose, everyone in the organisation must get behind it. There’s no point going through the exercise to determine the full vision and goals and objectives if the management or executives don’t get behind it. It will just be a waste of time and likely demoralising for the staff. The CEO, managing director, or whatever figure is in charge, should get behind the vision and the goals. They should be visibly and vocally supportive, otherwise the whole process of determining and sharing the purpose is not worth pursuing (although see the section later on sub-organisations).
Everyone in the organisation should have the power and the right to question a task or project if it seems to go against the Purpose, or even if it does not visibly benefit the Purpose.
This one should be obvious by now but every member of the organisation needs at least some degree of access to the hierarchy of purpose. It could be just the vision they see and goals and objectives relevant to their work. In some cases, for security reasons, parts of the hierarchy might be concealed from some people. And similarly, in a large organisation, the whole hierarchy might be overwhelming. In addition, as discussed earlier, there are potentially some benefits from making some of the hierarchy available to the general public.
It should also be easy for the relevant people to update and change the hierarchy. Trivially easy. The harder it is to keep the hierarchy up-to-date the more likely it is that it will get out of date.
Reflected on
It is unlikely that the hierarchy of purpose will remain fixed. Time must be put aside for measuring or at least intuiting the effectiveness of the values, goals and objectives. Anything old, irrelevant or sub-standard should be updated or culled. New items arising from experience, progress or external factors should be added.
In a suitably large organisation it might make sense to have separate hierarchies for different sub-organisations. That’s fine. There should be at least some common vision at the top, then each sub-organisation can have its own hierarchy beneath that, possibly starting with its own vision.
[[illustration here]]
Starting with Sub-Organisations
It might the case that you belong to an organisation that doesn’t choose to follow any of the practices described in this text. Or it could be that you are more able to bring about a localised change. In any case, it’s legitimate – potentially even sensible – to start by treating your sub-organisation as an organisation in its own right and determining and following a hierarchy of purpose for the sub-organisation itself.
The Purpose of the Hierarchy of Doing
Sleeping in the bed I made.
[[best shown with another illustration]]
Case Studies
[[Some case studies will go here.]]