Leading Change, The Purpose of Purpose

Leading Change, The Purpose of Purpose

A few weeks ago I posted about the ‘KISS for Leading Change’, breaking down what can be a really complicated subject into some simple steps to keep you focused when you’re responsible for leading a change. Based on the feedback that I’ve had, I’m going to write a few more posts on this topic, and really address some of those steps along the way to effectively staying focused while leading change. I’m going to kick off with purpose.

KISS Change Model

KISSChange model

What is purpose, and particularly in the context of change, what is purpose? For me, purpose is the essence of why. Why this change, why now? Why is it urgent?

What I want to show you is how to answer the ‘why’ question. For those of you who know me, the why question is not one that I usually use in coaching, but I think it really serves us well in this context.

What makes purpose important? Well look at the notable Ted Talk from Simon Sinek. People buy ‘why’. They buy why you do something, they don’t buy what you do, they don’t buy how do it, they buy why. The same thing happens in the context of change, or organizational change. For many people change is scary and confronting and so they hang back and wait and see what will happen…in organisational change terms this is often described as resistance. I’m not a real fan of this description because I believe there are a lot of really valid reasons for people to hang back or wait and see if it’s worth getting involved in.

I’d rather focus on how we can get people to step forward into the change, and this is where purpose comes in. People will engage with the ‘why’, with the purpose of the change. If you want to tap into the discretionary effort, if you want to engage your team, and have them involved and contribute in or to change, then you need to be able to identify and articulate and have people connect with, the purpose of the change. The why.

If there is no clear purpose it’s a bit like trying to steer a boat without a rudder or a captain. We don’t know where we’re going, we have no agreed direction, we don’t have a reason to trim the sails or put in the effort. There’s nothing important to motivate us.

When we’ve got purpose it’s like having a rudder and a captain. We know where we’re going, we know why it’s important. Rather than wandering aimlessly, we’re really focused, and able to direct our energy to something that we’re all invested in, and engaged in.

If we don’t have purpose then our chances of getting high levels of engagement and effort are low. People don’t bring their discretionary effort, they don’t proactively contribute. Why would they? What’s in it for them? There’s no real commitment to the change agenda across a team. As a leader it’s really hard to generate outcomes when you don’t have your team with you. It takes a lot of effort. It can really feel very lonely if you’re the only one that is driven to work on this change.


The search for purpose is a really common theme. There is substantial research in positive psychology and related fields about purpose and the importance at the individual level, the importance at the organizational level, and the team level. Really we’re just taking that concept and applying it to this area of organisational change, where there is so much that doesn’t work as it could, so many changes that don’t effectively realize their potential benefits, because we don’t have everybody on board. Purpose really is a way of boosting engagement, and boosting contribution.

How do you go about finding the purpose, or articulating the purpose? I would say go back to the basics. Ask some key questions. In the context of leading change you and your people need to understand:

Why does the organization exist?
Why does this particular team, or part of the business, exist? Then within that context,
Why is this change important?
Why is this change important now?
Why is this change important to our team?
If you can get clear on the answers to these questions, then you can share with the people around you.

Organizational change is the sum of the changes that individuals make. If individuals are not invested, and they’re not engaged, then the change simply won’t happen as you would like. When people are on purpose then they bring their resources, and that’s what you need. Their energy and their strengths, their knowledge and skills to make change happen really successfully.

They need to know the purpose. As the leader it’s your job to share it with them.

Love to know your thoughts.

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