Let’s team up.
12 steps to finding our purpose
I am by no means an expert at leadership, strategy or any of those highfalutin influencer types that get about the internet these days. But I do run a small business and we have, like many others struggled with understanding our Purpose. So for what it’s worth, this is how we went about working it out for us.
I’m sharing our story on the off-chance it might be valuable to someone else.
In one incarnation or another Custom D has been in the web business for around 20 years, although only about 5 years as a standalone company. For all of that time we have struggled to talk about what we do in a compelling way. The work we do is often challenging and exciting and many of our clients are redefining their industries. But we don’t have a niche, vertical market or specialisation. This can make life tricky when you’re trying to sell your goodies. All the experts say you gotta be able to slice and dice the market if you want any chance of success, so we have tried in earnest on multiple occasions to define who we should be targeting.
Over the years we have wheeled in the professionals to run workshops, interview our clients and staff, analyse our business model, industry demographic and culture – all with idea of telling us who we are and what direction we should be heading. The results have been... mixed, the last exercise proving near fatal. After the summer Christmas break, I was battling to find the motivation to turn up to work each day.
Recently I read a book call ‘Selling with Nobel Purpose’ by Lisa McLeod and it hit me like a freight-train. We don’t need someone else to tell us why we’re here and what our purpose is, we can damn well work that out for ourselves. Our staff are pretty smart, most of them even have university degrees to prove it!
We took the team offsite for a bit of fun and team building. We used the opportunity of being away from all the usual distractions to workshop what we do and why it matters. I’ve never run a workshop before and I’ve never attended one in this format, so I was really unsure of how well it would be received and whether I could get everyone on the same page.
I used a couple of the anecdotal exercises mentioned in the book and then kind built on that.
Step 1 - a bit of homework
I wanted everyone to answer a couple of questions, and I thought we would get more meaningful answers if we gave some advance warning so everyone could
contemplate their answers.
Question 1. - Without talking to anyone else, what do you think our purpose is?
Question 2. - Think of a time that stands out in your memory, when you’ve helped a workmate or client. We actually have a married couple on our team – Tim and Helen. Tim thought the time he looked after Helen’s kids was a great example... he is infact the father of those children, so we suggested he try and think of something else.
I also told them that we would be breaking into groups to analyse a few of our clients. Each group would be allocated a specific client. I let them know which client group they were in and I asked that they take some time to find out everything they could about them ahead of the workshop.
Step 2 - opening the books
In this process of working out our purpose , there were a couple of things that I felt were very important:
- that I was very open and honest about the way I saw things and how I was feeling
- that I didn’t come to this workshop with a pre-conceived answer that I was trying to steer everyone towards
In order to make both of the above very clear, I opened up about how important a sense of purpose and meaning wasto my own motivation. And that the lack of connection to something more meaningful than making a profit and growing the business was having a really detrimental affect my ability to do my job effectively.
Exposing yourself and inner thoughts is incredibly hard – there’s a real risk it’s going to freak-out the very people you’re actually trying to inspire!
Step 3 - what do you do for a crust?
This one is straight from the book, I went round the room and asked everyone to tell me what they say when they meet someone new and are asked... “so what do you do for a living?” - this is part one of a two part exercise.
Most of the team rather drably said stuff like “I’m a software developer” or “I’m a designer” etc etc
Step 4 - get up off your feet
To make sure no one went to sleep and get them all energised, we did an exercise called ‘The Human Knot’. You can find out what it is if you google it. Not sure I would use that one again for a group our size, but any exercise that gets people up off their feet, laughing and squawking a bit should have a similar effect.
Step 5 - who did you help?
As each person recounted their example of helping, it was really inspiring hearing all their stories. This is the above and beyond stuff and it definitely added to my appreciation of the people I work with.
There were a couple of stand-out stories that I hadn’t heard before, like how Matthew decided that he was going to spend his nights and weekends (without telling anyone) to work on a web app for a not-for-profit client of ours. They didn’t have the budget for the deluxe version, Matthew thought they deserved it, so he made it happen. And how Tim helped one of our guys that was trying to come to grips with a new programming language (he decided there was a better example than when he looked after his own children)by sending him a ‘tip of the day’ each morning to help deliver the learning in a more bit sized, digestible way.
You could tell each and everyone of them felt proud of their story and of how they had made life better for someone else.
I asked them to compare how they felt when talking about this verse telling people what they do for a job. What I was trying to illustrate was how much more engaged and animated everyone is (even our rather introverted developers) when describing something they feel very invested in vs the rather matter-of-fact example of telling people what they do for a job, and how this might translate to how they feel about their work at Custom D.
I think the point was made quite nicely.
Step 6 - a recap on why we need Purpose
Without purpose, there’s no direction and significantly lower levels of engagement across the board.
We all spend a lot of time at work and if we’re all just here for the pay-check, they’re going to be pretty long days. As can be seen in the previous step the difference between simply turning up and turning up fully engaged can have a powerful impact on your work and in turn, your life.
Step 7 - lay it on me
So you remember in Step 1, I asked everyone to think about what they thought our purpose was. The reason I did this was two-fold. Firstly, I was very curious to to see what they thought and secondly, I just wanted to get this question front-of-house in everyone’s mind.
The answers were more-or-less what you would expect, a couple financially driven, many that described what we do and even one that gave us the very high purpose, which is ‘to be happy!’
I loved hearing the obvious belief that everyone has in the value we provide for our clients, it provided a fantastic basis to work through the rest of the steps in the hope of having that eureka moment at the end.
Step 8 - distractions
It’s quite possible that this might be true for many companies, but we have a terrible habit of looking inwards to find meaning, rather that outward to see the impact of the work we do. We look at the projects we work on and pat ourselves out the back for jobs well done.
A while back we spent a bit of time thinking about our values, we came up with a list of things and gave ourselves a rating on how we thought we were doing. Some we were excelling at, some we could see serious room for improvement and the balance were somewhere in-between. An interesting exercise for sure, but how can we establish a clear set of values without first understanding what we’re trying to achieve?
We also spend way too much time comparing ourselves to others, particularly companies that look kind-of similar to us. These guys are growing faster... those guys have higher profile clients... them over there have a stack of industry awards... etc etc
Drawing inspiration from others is fine and good, but it can also become counter-productive to our own sense-of-self and the valuable contributions we make to the businesses we work for.
Step 9 - make sure we focus on the right stuff
I took some time to rattle off some of our celebrated success stories and I’m pleased to say there are a quite a few to choose from.
Large, super-slick, multi-person projects that have been delivered on time and on budget, complex apps we’ve built that are being used by thousands of people everyday with very little issues, projects where we provided a superior result and experience for the client than their previous developers.
But where was the client in all of these stories? It's not that it’s wrong to recognise the things we’re doing well, but how much were we talking about the outcome for the client? Did we even know?
To be honest, this kind of introspection can be quite confronting!
Step 10 - tell the story
With much of the ground work in place, the next phase was to break into the client groups. The next bit was really the guts of our workshop, it’s where our team had to really think about our clients in their own right.
I asked them to divide their discussion into 4 sections
- what’s their story - what’s their history, tell us about the struggles and challenges
- why’s what they do better - each of the case studies have been successful... why?
- what’s their vision - what’s their end game? what sort of world domination are they after?
- what’s our part - how is what we’re doing helping them achieve their ambitions
I pinched part of the what’s above from a Kiwi Landing Pad webinar with James Hurman of Previously Unavailable and Storytech. He reckons the best way to tell an engaging story about your business is to break it into three acts (that’s the first 3 bullets above, I added the last one for the specific purposes of our workshop). This helps whoever it is you’re talking to, connect with your story .
And that is exactly what I wanted everyone to do.
I’d been quite deliberate with the clients I chose, they all had really good stories and we’d be on the ride with them for quite some time, so knew them really well.
I set each group the challenge of building a captivating story about their client, using the format above, to present back to everyone. I wanted them to get down and dirty with the back story of each of the clients so we could hear about the pain and rejection, the successes and triumphs!
There were 4 people in each group and each person had to present one of the four sections, this forced everyone to stay alert and reduced the chances of the more reserved types sitting quietly in the background.
Holy moly, this was a cracker! Highlight for me was listening to Cindy our receptionist talk about the trials and tribulations of her client in a truly heartfelt way. It gave the impression that she really knew him and had a lot of respect for the commitment he had to make his business work. Cindy doesn’t usually have the opportunity to get involved in the projects we work on and this exercise gave her a greater personal connection to one of our favourite clients.
Step 11 - collation
As each person in each group presented to us all, there emerged some common themes.
Each of the clients we profiled were big risk takers, they worked extremely hard and absolutely believed in what they were doing. Rejection, failure and adversity were no match for their ambition to pursue their dreams.
There was a lot of variation here, as you might expect, lots of specific things they were doing differently to others. But there were some common threads we could draw between them all. Each were making a big impact on their industry and technology was playing a very large part in the way they were setting themselves apart from the pack.
Our clients all have very big plans and they’re prepared to sacrifice a lot to bring those ambitions to fruition. There’s been a bit of pivoting as opportunities have presented themselves , but where they are (and each were at very different stages) was really only the beginning.
I loved this bit. When we reflected on each of the clients, it was so easy to see our role within each of our clients’ businesses. We not just external contractors... ‘guns for hire’ as we sometimes describe ourselves – we are an integral part of these success stories.
In each instance, the client has a close personal connection with at least one of our team. We completely manage their projects; development, project management, security, scalability, robustness, we’re there all the time, trying to stay a couple steps ahead of their needs. We act as a sounding board for their ideas, we put forward our own ideas about how we think we could help make their business better, faster, easier, more robust.
We’re not just designers and developers, we’re trusted advisors, partners, working alongside them as an extension of their own business.
Wahoo! Nailed it!!
Step 12 - so our purpose is...
This is really tough. Pulling all that into a succinct, meaningful one-liner is harder than it looks. It’s really easy to feel the need to ‘describe’ what we do, and come up catchy tag lines, but that’s not our purpose!
The purpose has to be something we all connect with, something that we can hold up as the arbitrator of decisions for our business. We rolled it round for a bit, went away and came back to it a couple of times but we were inconclusive.
Jeepers, if you’ve made it this far, that’s a disappointing outcome for your reading investment!! But fear not, we persisted over the coming days and did in fact come up with a Purpose.
Was it worth it?
Oh yeah. We were really motivated to find our purpose, but even if we hadn’t, the value of this exercise was incredible. Even if you know what your purpose is, I would still recommend going through a process like this with your team.
The really good bits:
- we collectively understand what we really do for our clients
- we all got to know some of our clients a whole lot better
- we learnt a bit about each other and connected as a team
- we got everyone thinking about PURPOSE