Monday, January 20, 2014

Mind Your P's

I recently heard that every business in the world boils down to three P's: people, process, and purpose.

(This is probably something that everyone learns in business school, but I was trained in the humanities. Bear with me.)

All three P's are important, it goes without saying. The third P, though, has wrinkled and ramifications that I've been thinking about lately. Namely, when we talk about a business' purpose, we need to distinguish between big-P Purpose and little-P purpose.

Purpose, capitalized, refers to the reason the business (or the team) exists. "Put a computer on every desk, running Microsoft software" was the Microsoft Purpose during its golden years. Every business has a Purpose, even if it's the most basic one: to make money. Everyone who works at a business is required on some level to contribute to that Purpose, and most all-hands meetings dedicate at least part of the time to infusing the workforce with a shared enthusiasm for that Purpose.

The reality on the ground, though, is that every single employee at a corporation has a purpose of his or her own: to make money, to have dental insurance, to build a career, to overcome challenges, to make customers happy, to impress their Mom. Everyone, without exception, has a purpose—though they may not be willing to admit what it is. Our purpose is what gets us out of bed in the morning. Our purpose is what lends meaning to what we do; it's the narrative in our life story.

It would be simplistic, then, to imagine that a business has one Purpose, because the first P (people) comes into play as well. There are a variety of purposes floating around in the air inside every office building, and I suspect that a dysfunctional team is, at least in part, made so by the fact that team members have little-P purposes that don't align with one another. This part of the team wants to make changes that will delight the customer; that part of the team wants to minimize risk; this other part is focused on what they want to do next in their career. Discordant purposes within a team are like horses pulling in different directions.

This is a big part—and maybe the most important part—of a manager's job. She needs to know her reports well enough to understand what purposes drive them, and she needs to be sufficiently engaged with them to help them develop purposes that align both with the business' Purpose and with the purposes of the other members of the team. After all, a collection of individuals becomes a team when all the horses are pulling in the same direction. It's the manager's job to align these various purposes, because no one else can.

Of course, nothing can degrade a sense of Purpose quite so effectively as bad Process. More on that later.