April 16, 2014

If You Want a Successful Team, Start with a Noble Purpose

Successful teams are teams that are able to elicit the intent to contribute from each of the individual members of the team. A contribution-focused team is a successful team. A contribution-focused team has team members that are willing to go the extra mile in pursuit of the team’s objective.

The Benevolent Intent


One of the critical criteria that supports this willingness in team members is the overall purpose of the team, what we call the Benevolent Intent of the team. The principle behind the need of a benevolent intent is simply this: If you want people to go the extra mile, that is, above and beyond the call of duty, then you had better give them a purpose that is noble enough to warrant that sort of sacrifice from them.

The issue of benevolent intent challenges the prevalent view on the purpose of enterprises. In my experience, most people think that the reason why enterprises exist is to render a profit to the owner of the enterprise. This understanding of the purpose of an enterprise however fails to motivate the individuals in the organisation to contribute.

gsx200Assume, for example, that you are an operator in a GSK factory that produces the silver bullet for AIDS, both as a prophylactic and as a cure. This is a miracle drug. A patient could be on his death bed about to breathe his last, should he take one of this pills he is walking around within hours. Also, if a person should take this pill once they will never get AIDS. However, you and your colleagues are not very inspired by your jobs and you really do the minimum that is required, and this is noticed by management.

One day the general manager of the plant has a brilliant insight into motivating the workforce and calls a big meeting in the cafeteria. In the meeting he basically announces the following: “Work very hard at making these drugs because if you do you will make a shareholder on the LSE very wealthy.” If you were an operator in this factory you would probably be very discontented at this point and will more than likely want to know what was in it for you.

However, should the general manager say something like “Work very hard at making these drugs because if you do you will save millions of lives around the world” you would feel much better about the job that you are doing and may even be inclined to go the extra mile in making the drugs.

The difference between the first two statements really lies in intent. The first statement makes you feel like you are being taken from, while the second statement really gives one a sense of making some sort of contribution, of giving something. Clearly, if the success of the team is dependent on people going the extra mile, it is only the second intent that really solicits that possibility.

We refer to this second intent as a benevolent intent. A benevolent intent indicates how the service or product of an organisation makes a contribution to the world. It phrases a reason which is noble enough to give people an excuse to rise above their self interest. The interests of the shareholder are never enough of a reason to do this.

Any enterprise has a benevolent intent. Any enterprise has a market that it is aimed at serving, which means that every enterprise is aimed at adding value to someone outside the enterprise. It is only once that has been achieved that there can be profit.

One has to bake the cake before it can be shared. In the broader sense, when groups are purely aimed at their own preservation they generally ossify and stagnate. Robust groups are groups that coalesce around a set of interests that are bigger than the group.

Examples would be the military unit that fights for the freedom of the nation, the sports team that plays for the honour of the province, the employees of an enterprise that is making a genuine contribution to its market.

Practically this means that people find it easier to commit to a team or an enterprise when:

  1. There is a clear understanding of who the customer of the organisation is.
  2. There is a clear understanding of the immediate need that is fulfilled by the team. This means that the members of the team know exactly what goods and services are delivered to the customer.
  3. The team members understand what transformation the enterprise is trying to effect. This means that there is a clear understanding of the difference between the before and after state for the customer. The transformation effected by an explosives manufacturer, for example, is the breaking of rock. The transformation effected by a cement producer is the binding of aggregate.
  4. The team members understand the benevolent intent of the organisation. This means that the team member can take the next step to see the implications of the transformation that is being effected. For example, when explosives break rock they unlock wealth. When cement binds aggregate nations get built.

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