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Defining Purpose to Prepare the Ground for Collective Work

By Susan Grove

Clarifying purpose before launching into a group effort saves time and helps unleash creativity and action.

When I participated in a Liberating Structures workshop a few years ago, I encountered strong, resonant emphasis on the importance of purpose. They said that not being clear about the purpose of your group, or even just for a meeting, wastes a lot of time and energy. They cautioned against a group moving forward without a compelling purpose, noting that “more freedom and more responsibility are unleashed” when a group “discovers an unambiguous shared purpose.” 

The key insight is that the group itself must co-create and articulate their purpose through a process of discovery. “Discover” is indeed the right term; rather than having the purpose of a group generated ahead of time, it is revealed and determined by the group itself. This process of emergent discovery is a way to bring people together by naming the “why” behind the work and making the implicit explicit, so that we are not operating from unexamined assumptions or shallow definitions of the goals of the work.

To accomplish this, the workshop offered a simple and refreshing tool for clarifying the purpose of a group: 9 Whys. I have used this tool a number of times. The facilitation plan we offer below has been adapted from Liberating Structures for you to be able to spend 30 minutes walking your group through this exercise.

The 9 Whys tool is rooted in the belief that powerful purpose attracts participation, fuels the spread of an initiative, and has two essential attributes: a touchstone of clear personal purpose for each individual and fundamental justification for the group’s work in the larger community. 

The Liberating Stuctures’ facilitators encourage groups to work toward a single sentence that powerfully justifies the group’s work to others: “We exist to_______!” And at the same time, we recognize that a good purpose is never closed; it can be made “dynamically incomplete by inviting everyone to make contributions and mutually shape understanding of the deepest need for your work.” 

According to Liberating Structures, big WHY questions “dig for the essence of or deepest need for your activities. Generating a small number of clear answers can help you move forward together with more velocity.” 

We agree with this conclusion: Equipped with real clarity around WHY the group exists, collectively figuring out HOW to proceed becomes much easier.

TOOL: 9 WHYS Facilitation Plan

This exercise is used to generate clarity around shared purpose in a working group or team. You can adapt it and use it regularly to also clarify the intention behind specific projects.

IN PAIRS – 10 minutes
Each person in a pair interviews their partner for 5 minutes. The interviewer starts with a question like: 

When the initiative is new:
Think about the potential of {name of initiative}. Take 30 seconds to jot down some things that come to mind. Looking at your list, why is {one or more items on the list} important to you?

When the group has been working together for a while already:
Thinking about what {name of initiative} does. Take 30 seconds to jot down some things that come to mind. Looking at your list, why is it {one or more items on the list} important to you?

Following the initial response, the interviewer gently seeks a deeper answer by asking: 

Why is that important to you? 

The interviewer actively listens, digging deeper and deeper by asking “Why? Why? Why?” up to nine times or until their partner can go no deeper because they have reached fundamental personal purpose for this work. Record a brief statement of personal purpose. 

After about 5 minutes, switch roles and repeat.

Each pair shares the experience and insights with another pair. The small group discusses:

What differences and similarities do we see?
What is the importance to the larger community?
WITH WHOLE GROUP – 10 minutes:

Each small group shares insights with the whole group. The whole group discusses: 

What shared purpose is emerging? 
Why would we and others commit our time and other resources? 

The group records a brief statement of the shared purpose. It could be in the format of:

We exist to {start / create / stop…}____________. 

Recommended Resources

Liberating Structures offers easy-to-learn microstructures for facilitation which can replace more controlling or constraining approaches and enhance relational coordination and trust. They quickly foster lively participation in groups of any size, making it possible to truly include everyone and unleash creativity.

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Susan Grove, GWI

Susan (she/her) strives to express callings and longings to facilitate learning, support collaboration, organize information, engage conflict, connect across difference, create lasting conditions for greater equity, and contribute toward justice in the Mahicantuck Valley.

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