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.