Did you brush your teeth today? I’m assuming if you haven’t yet, that you intend to at some point. I’m also guessing that you did it yesterday and will do it tomorrow, too. At least once.

The vast majority of Americans brush their teeth every single day. Why? Probably because it’s a part of our routine and we barely even think about it. But beneath that, it’s because we believe it’s good for our dental hygiene. We believe it’s good for our breath. And we believe it’s good for the longevity of our original teeth.

Belief drives action.

If tomorrow, scientists published a study that showed that brushing your teeth was in fact carcinogenic, you may pause before reaching for the brush. If evidence built, and more and more people believed that daily teeth brushing could cause cancer, fewer and fewer people would brush their teeth every day.

Belief drives action.

Whether we’re an individual or an organization, what we believe fuels our actions. It fuels what we think we’re capable of. In turn, it determines what we will achieve.

Knowing that what we believe is the driving force behind what we do puts a great deal of importance on what we believe.

The power of a purpose statement

No matter the size or substance of your organization, your purpose statement is your moon. Your north star. It is the thing that suspends limitations and dares to dream big. It is the thing that says: this is the way we want the world to be.

Powerful purpose statements are an authentic reflection of why you do what you do. It articulates in a short string of words what your core motivation is for coming together and doing what you do day in, day out.

Remembering that belief drives action, the power of the purpose statement is unlimited. Big purpose statements allow big things to happen. They set the expectation for organizations to come together and change the world.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  •   Duolingo: To give everyone access to a private tutor experience through technology.
  •   Tesla: To change the fundamental energy infrastructure of the world
  •   Local First: To build a diversified Arizona economy that is sustainable, resilient and celebratory of diverse cultures

Javelina’s purpose is to advance equality and human dignity through social, political, and economic change. This is why we exist. It’s why we all bother to show up for work every day. It’s why we choose this team, this city, this work over all the other things we could be doing. It also took us a lot of time and intentional thought to develop.

The characteristics of a purpose statement

A powerful purpose:

  •   Captures why you do what you do
  •   Paints a picture of the world you are creating
  •   Is created collaboratively with your team
  •   Is referred to regularly – everyone should be able to recite it by heart
  •   Sounds audacious – we’re dreaming big here
  •   Beyond money – it’s not about dollars and cents, but about impact

You may have a purpose statement already. If so, does it meet all of these criteria? If not, it could use a tune-up. This doesn’t mean you need to start again. But some collaborative brainstorming with your team could lead to a much stronger purpose that everyone is excited about.

If your purpose statement only ticks one or two of the boxes – or if it was written over a decade ago – there could be great value in going through a process to generate a new purpose statement. The passage of time and changes on your team can completely redefine unlimited thinking. Remember – the bigger your purpose statement, the more you’ll be able to achieve.

Whether you’re conducting a bit of a purpose-revamp or starting from scratch, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to approach it:

Capturing your purpose statement

We talk about “capturing” your purpose statement rather than “creating” it, because your purpose is something that already exists. The reason you do what you do is baked into the fibers of your organization already – developing a purpose statement is about digging in to find those details and articulate them in a succinct and effective way.

Step 1: Schedule a 2-3 hour meeting with your main players.

Depending on the size of your team, this might be your leadership, your full team, or you and some trusted advisors. This works for as few as three people and as many as ten. Between four and eight people makes for an ideal sized group for brainstorming and throwing ideas around. If you’re a solopreneur, find two or three trusted advisors to help out – having people to bounce your ideas off of gets the creative juices flowing.

Schedule your meeting for a time and place that allows for minimal interruptions and maximized creative thinking. Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are likely not ideal.

Step 2: Kick it off with a powerful icebreaker.

No trust falls, I promise. Spend 30-60 minutes connecting with the members of your team and getting to know each other better. This is always valuable no matter how well acquainted you already are or how many other things you have on your plate.

Our favorite activity to do here is called Pivotal Moments. Ahead of time, ask each person coming to the meeting to think of 3-5 pivotal moments in his or her life. These are things that occurred that for whatever reason shifted things in their lives. It doesn’t have to be a huge event; many pivotal moments are seemingly simple things that changed how we see the world or ourselves.

Take turns to pair up and share one of your pivotal moments, and then listen as your partner shares one of theirs. Explain what happened and how it shifted things for you. Rotate in a speed-dating style, sharing a different pivotal moment with each partner. After you’ve rotated a few times, come back together as a group and discuss together what you took away from the conversations.

We love this activity because:

  1. You always learn something new about your colleague, no matter how well you knew them. And often you learn new things about yourself too.  
  2. It gets the whole group practicing how to delve inwards and understand things about ourselves that were always there but maybe we had never articulated. It’s a great warm-up for the rest of the session.

Step 3: Ask big questions about your work

Fully warmed up, now you start to dig into the fundamental reasons by why you do what you do. As a group, answer the following questions:

  1. What is the ultimate impact you want to have?
  2. Who feels the impact of your work?
  3.  Success wouldn’t be success without…
  4. What do you want your legacy to be?

If you’re a bigger group, you can answer these in pairs and then report back to the whole group. You can of course switch up the questions to relate to your specific work as well. The questions should enable big picture thinking, and help you start to dig below the surface of your daily activities.

Write the answers you come up with on post it notes and stick them to the wall. Together, group similar ideas and find the key themes. With some time, you should start to see the major ideas emerge.

From here, start to organize the key themes into a concept of a purpose statement. It could include an idea of who you work for and the ultimate impact your work will have. It should definitely include an explanation as to why this work matters.  

Avoid the urge to wordsmith – reserve this for the writers in your group. At this time, talk about the most important elements that must be included.

When you get to that point, designate a small number of people to draft particular statements for the group to respond to. Schedule another time to come together and respond to the drafts – then you can play with the language to land on your final purpose statement.

You can click here to download a sample agenda for figuring out your purpose.

Some final words of advice

We can’t emphasize enough how important a purpose statement is. It is the yeast. The horcrux. The key to the kingdom.

Like every important thing, it takes time and energy. If it were easy, everyone would have done it already. So here are our final tips to keep in mind:

  • Be patient. It is much better to do this well rather than quickly. If it takes two or three or even four attempts, that’s okay. The time you put in will pay dividends in the final product you create.
  • Capture the essence first – wordsmith later. This is where many groups get caught up – you go down a rabbit hole over specific word choice and before you know it time is up and tempers are flared. Start off by getting to the core of what you want to communicate, and then spend time tweaking words later. Don’t feel like you have to wordsmith as a group – pick the members of the team whose strengths lie in language and writing to generate a few suggestions that the whole group can respond to.
  • You’ll know when you have the right statement. It’s like the first time you see a shooting star. You just know. If the draft you’re working on doesn’t make your heart skip a beat, keep going. It’ll be worth it.
  • Integrate it into your daily work. Having put all this time and energy into developing your purpose, don’t just now slap it on your website and move on. A purpose only does its job when it’s at the heart of your daily work. Find ways to refer back to and be inspired by your purpose on a regular basis.

Establishing a strong purpose statement is the first essential step toward changing the world. When your “Why” is clear, even the most daunting challenges become far easier.

For a step-by-step guide to identifying your core values, check out our Finding Your Values series.  

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