As I arrived in the research wing of a big hospital unit I was met by stony faces and folded arms. Fifteen clinical researchers sat around a boardroom table looking grim.  Their leader looked at me hopefully.  His team was not working well together.  Their work needed to be integrated in order to find novel approaches to treating disease, but they saw themselves as competitors and worked in silos

The team members scowled with skepticism at someone external ‘being brought in’. Half an hour later the mood had radically shifted.  What changed the trajectory of that team? Psychometrics? Nope. Team profiling? Nope.  Rousing inspirational keynote? Nope. This team’s shift came from exploring three simple questions:

  1. Why does this work matter?

Asking why this work matters is a great place to begin when you are establishing shared purpose.  It is very easy, for leaders in particular, to assume this is obvious.  After all it’s in your strategic plan, your mission statement, your funding proposals.  You think about it all the time don’t you? But does everyone else? The reality of our working lives is that we spend the vast majority of it doing the work and not reflecting on why we do it.

“It always takes a group of people working together with a common purpose in an atmosphere of trust and collaboration to get extraordinary things done.” James M. Kouzes

When I ask individuals in a team to say why their work matters they usually give similar replies.  Their sense of the deeper purpose is similar, even if they disagree about how best to achieve it.

Asking ‘why does this work matter?’ also reveals differences between people’s values and priorities.  This is important when you are looking to capture a shared purpose that brings people together. For example one person might answer ‘because we need better data’ and another ‘we need to know how families are affected’, while another says ‘to influence policy-making’. Finding shared purpose is about finding the connections between the whys and what lies beneath them.  The best advice I can give here is to take your time to listen.  The answer about what unites people will become clear once you hear each individual speak.

  1. Why does this work matter to you?

Back to the defensive clinical researchers…the question that really changed the dynamic between them was this one.  It was one of those palpable shifts when you feel the energy of the room transforming around you.  I simply asked each person in turn, ‘why does this work matter to you?’ What followed were fifteen simple, powerful, short answers. “My Grandmother died of this”, “My Mother has this”. “My Sister is in recovery from this”. Every person in the team had experienced loss or suffering in relation to the disease they studied. What stunned me at the time was that this group had worked together for a number of years, and yet they didn’t know this about each other.  They didn’t know because nobody had asked and somehow their work culture had not facilitated that kind of conversation.  My simple contribution was to hold a space where each person could open up enough to share a personal contribution.

“Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”  Patrick Lencioni

  1. What does this work matter to others?

 This important question invites everyone to shift perspective and think from other people’s points of view.  In the case of the clinical researchers we thought about patients, families, scientists, charities, funders, nurses, doctors and policy makers.  Thinking about why our work matters to others can help shape and define what we are doing so that it creates more value for more people. The simple act of thinking about other’s perspectives takes us out of our bubble and helps us make lateral connections, important for innovation.

“Each person does see the world in a different way. There is not a single, unifying, objective truth. We’re all limited by our perspective.” Siri Hustvedt

Next time you have an away day with your team I invite you to try these three simple questions.  We’d love to know what they reveal about your shared purpose.  If you’d like our help to bring people together, please get in touch. We offer coaching, facilitation and learning programmes to support whole-hearted collaboration.