How to Identify Your Team or Organization’s Purpose


The window shade company was struggling. Mary, a business consultant, asked the owner, “What business are you really in?”

The owner replied, condescendingly, “The window shade business, Mary.” Thinking to himself this conversation was a waste of time.

But undaunted, Mary asked again, “When someone walks into your store, why do they want a window shade? What are you really selling?”

That caused the owner to pause a moment. Why does someone want a window shade?

“Well, to control light.” He thought a moment longer and added, “They also want privacy.”

It dawned on him, “We’re in the light-control and privacy business! – not the window shade business.”

His realization opened the door to new possibilities that saved his store.

The year was 1920.  Venetian blinds were quite popular in France but hadn’t caught on yet in the United States. By understanding what business they were really in, the window shade company was able to get ahead of the curve, to be one of the first to introduce them in the United States, and turn their business around.

The business consultant, Mary Parker Follett, went on to become Peter Drucker’s mentor, who he dubbed “The Prophet of Management.”

To identify your team or organization’s purpose, answer these 3 questions:

1. What business are you really in?

Who are your customers and what do they really need from you?

In 1990, CNN redefined network news.  Looking at news from the viewpoint of their customer, they realized their customers were busy people who didn’t have time to gather in front of the TV at 7 pm to watch the news. Dad had a second job, Mom worked a different shift, or the kids were out doing sports. What they needed was “news on demand.”  CNN defined themselves as being in the “hard breaking news” business – providing news 24 hours a day.

Understanding “what business you’re really in” provides clarity for strategic decisions such as what to invest money in. Knowing what business they were in and staying true to their purpose, CNN invested their money in technology rather than high-priced entertainers. It paid off. They were the only news network to provide full coverage during the Gulf War.

Knowing “what business you’re really in” informs strategic decisions.

2. What is the real value you offer?

How do people benefit from what you offer?

Recently shopping for a new mattress, I went to several stores. In one of the stores, the sales person offered me a pillow and a comfy blanket, saying, “Take off your shoes, relax and get comfortable. We want to make sure the mattress you buy will give you a good night’s sleep.”  He knew what business he was in – not the mattress business – he was in the “good night’s sleep” business. And that’s the store I bought my mattress from.

How does your service or product benefit society at large? 

The power generated by a noble sense of purpose is described by the founder of Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney: “Everybody had this immense sense of purpose … it never occurred to us that we couldn’t change the world.” Sesame Street’s mission of preparing inner city children for school and engaging parents in the process was never obscured.

A significant and valuable purpose inspires commitment and provides meaning to daily activities.

3. What is the end-result that you offer?

Look at your purpose from the viewpoint of the result, not the products or services you offer.

When I’m at a cocktail party and someone asks me what I do, I have a choice about whether I want to talk with them or not. If I say, “I’m a consultant,” their eyes glaze over and they move on to the next person. If I say “I help leaders and their teams create a shared vision and put it into action,” they’re usually curious and begin to ask questions.

Focusing on the end-result you create is engaging and energizing.

Your purpose is your reason for existence.

If you think your team exists to create products, to deliver services or to make money, you are missing the opportunity to tap into the power of a clear purpose. These questions will help you surface new ways of understanding your work and new possibilities for moving forward.


40 comments to How to Identify Your Team or Organization’s Purpose

  • Absolutely love this. Brief. Brilliant. Potent. Following this process has the potential to transform an organization into a turned on powerhouse. I’m a big proponent of defining a compelling purpose or vision. This can really make it happen.

    • Thank you, Lowell. So many people talk about the importance of purpose, but I don’t see many descriptions of what to do to identify it. Purpose is the element vision* that teams seem to struggle with the most. I appreciate your recognizing the value this has to offer.

      *I consider purpose to be one of three elements of a compelling vision. The other two are values and picture of the future as described in my post The Key to Vision Statements That Work that explains this in more detail.

      • Yes, I see, and I agree again with your priorities, Jesse. I’m an executive leadership coach now, but when I started my first company back in the ‘80’s (not the 1880’s!), we relied on the powerful principles of purpose and core values, despite my being a total novice at running a company. We built a terrific business which made a real contribution to our customers and vendors alike. I wrote about it last year for ‘SmartCEO,” a DC-area business magazine. The story is a fun read; I hope it’s not too self-promotional to post it here.

  • Perfect, Jesse! This is the most important challenge of the management nowadays. This procedure is so clear and a great value. Congratulations!

  • I second Lowell’s comment Jesse — great post. Sometimes the simplest reminders can teach some as complex as big picture critical thinking.


    • Thanks Kate. I agree it’s about translating what seems complex into simple language and actionable steps. I’m a fan of Albert Einstein’s philosophy: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

  • At our recent Volunteer Appreciation I ask the volunteers to shout out what position they serve in. Next I ask them to shout out what they do. The whole environment changed when I ask them to tell me WHY They Do What They Do! They begin to stand on their feet and tell their why! It was empowering and enlightening.

    Thank you for sharing this powerful blog. I appreciate the passion you exhibit for clarity.

    Thomas McDaniels

    • What a great way to help people experience the different in their energy and commitment when they are clear about the purpose of their activities. Thanks for sharing an example of another way to help people get clear. And thank you for your kind words about my blog, Pastor Tom.

  • Great questions to ask. Thanks Jesse. Working with a new company. Will try these out today and get some feedback.

  • Great post Jesse! Always amazes me how we can oversimplify what we do and realy miss the big picture. All three points are gold to an organization. I think that it is vital to take a periodic step back and evaluate how you are doing. We tend to get caught up making widgets and really miss the real purpose of what we are doing. Thanks for the reminder!

    • It amazes me, too, Joe. It’s like taking a walk in a beautiful woods and only looking down at your feet. I think the trick is to learn to watch your feet (so you don’t unexpectedly step in a puddle) and also look around and enjoy the beauty and experience the fulfillment of taking the walk.

  • These tips can be used in a number of different ways.

    I saw many of these tips as a great way to think about branding especially when you think of the value you offer.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Scott, I focus on internal organizational and team understanding, but have always been intrigued by the connection to branding and marketing. When it is done right, marketing is the external projection of the internal image. Marketing gets into trouble when they try to construct an image that isn’t accurate or put a spin on it to manipulate public perception. When the internal understanding is clear, the external messages are natural. Check out some of the Zappos YouTube videos – their employees are their best marketers.

      • You put this so well, too, Jesse: “When it is done right, marketing is the external projection of the internal image. Marketing gets into trouble when they try to construct an image that isn’t accurate or put a spin on it to manipulate public perception.” More trouble brews in that the employees see through the pretense, cynicism sets in, and engagement is weakened. It’s not easy, but you gotta walk the talk – which takes focus, commitment, and practice.

  • Mighty | Transformational Leadership

    Right on Jesse Lyn! This is a great reminder about what really matters for business owners. :)

  • Enjoyed this article a lot. It was brief and punchy delivering all the strong points required for focusing on what it is that will make you stand out in this world, whether business or individual. I’ve been a big fan of Simon Sinek’s Start With Why and this is of the same belief. Great. Bookmarked and printed, as well as used again for myself!


    • Glad you saw the individual as well as the business applications, Ray. I was hoping my cocktail party example might demonstrate a broader application. Loved your description of my post as “brief and punchy” – that’s my goal. (as well as relevant and practical).

  • Three great questions, Jesse. I especially like your thoughts on “adding value” and “end-results.” Thanks!

  • Lapin

    Great thinkng, Jesse Lyn. Purpose needs to go even further, and by accessing the depths of your own soul and your corporate soul, articulating your purpose in a way that is unique and differentiated from any other.

    David Lapin
    Author:Lead by Greatness

  • Love the opening questions and revelation. There are so many scenarios where re-framing the paradigm like this can help. Even working with teams about what their work really is and why it matters.

    • Absolutely! I actually ask these exact questions when working with teams whenever we begin an initiative. If a team wants to develop into a high performing team, everyone needs to understand the purpose and their role in achieving it. If a team wants to change, they need to understand what their fundamental base is. If they want to work on customer service, they need to understand what they are offering. etc. etc. etc. Thanks for pointing that out the application to teams, Scott.

  • What a great post! One of my team posted a link to this on our FaceBook page. Very timely as we’re just coming to the end of a rebranding and this same question “bugged” us for a few weeks. Thankfully, we appear to have answered it from the customer’s perspective… Synchronicity or what!? Thanks for your inspiration!

  • Hi Jessie

    Your number one question is the key to everything else you do in business, fail to answer it well, will limit your success, growth, and can lead to ultimate failure.

    I have often seen the dramatic change in a business that can occur when they stop and finally answer simple question of what business they are in. A bad answer will result in you defining yourself in a totally wrong way, and you will focus on casing business that you should have ignored, while you avoid opportunity that could massively improve your performance.

    It is the catch 22 of most autoparts suppliers, they have defined themselves by who they serve, not by what they are and actually do, and because of that they have limited their level of success.

    The second question is what helps you define the first, and the third is the start of your whole sales, and promotion effort.

    Three simple, yet vital and often totally ignored questions.


    • Well said, Robert. Many companies define themelves by who they serve.. by what they provide … or so broadly that there is no focus. In my work with leaders, I have found that every time they they invest the time in finding the answer to these questions they are rewarded with greater clarity, energy and results. Thank you for reinforcing and further illuminating these points.

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar

    hi Jesse,

    i got here on your blog, because i was looking for a way to identify the core purpose for indiviuals and organisations. the thing is, i am currently trying to help someone known to me identify and define a core purpose for himself and the organisation he just started.

    though i appreciate the simplicity of your three questions, what i feel is that it is not enough for a person to clearly identify and define the purpose core to his heart through these three questions(even though they sum up what actually is needed to achieve the objective).

    i have seen intelligent people jump to conclusions they want to while answering such questions. and until and unless they are given situations, where they need to make hard decisions or choice, they feel unable to appreciate the depth of the concept you are offering in your blog. therefore i believe if you can add some excercises to be undertaken step by step for a person to reach to final cnclusion, it would be great help.

    also on a personal note, i would like to have your opinion on my understanding of core purpose. Jim collins says that core purpose is the fundamental reason to exist. and i believe that each being an therfore organisation also has fundamental reason to exist. and if the purpose is achieved then there is no reason left for exitence of that being or organisation. if this is correct understanding, how do indiviuals or organisations find such core purpose.

    thank you


    • Hi Gurmeet,
      Your question is important and relevant for many. I find that “purpose” is the element that people struggle with the most because they tend to think in terms of activities, products and services and miss the fundamental question of “what business they are really in”. Giving lots of examples helps them understand the concept. I also find that people who have read our book “Full Steam Ahead: Unleash the Power of Vision” struggle less.

      As for specific questions and exercises, you might want to take a look at The Full Steam Ahead Field Guide, which takes a team through the process. A 600 word blog is not going to give the step by step instruction needed, but piecing together several of my blogs that address different but similar aspects might be helpful. I would recommend Help Your Team Get Unstuck: Ask What Business Are You Really In? and 6 Questions to Uncover the Purpose of Your Work.

      At a personal level, my post Personal Vision: 6 Guidelines to Create a Vision For the Life You Really Want and 3 Activities to (re)Discover Your Vision might be helpful.

      I think the best activity to help one dig below the surface is asking “Three Why’s” – Each time you think you have an answer, ask yourself “Why do I want that?” Dig down to what is fundamentally important to you.

      I agree with Jim Collins that purpose is the organization’s reason for existence. Usually organizational purpose is ongoing. At a team level, I have seen instances where a team has completed its objective or where circumstances have changed and the purpose of the team is no longer necessary. In these situations, rarely do teams voluntarily close themselves down. Unfortunately they usually die a slow death where team members become frustrated and slowly disillusioned. It’s an odd phenomenon that the team wants to continue to exist even though there is no longer a clear purpose. I’m a strong proponent of “honorable closure” – intentional endings when appropriate. Hope these thoughts are helpful. Good luck with your work. I think you will be helpful to the person you are working with because you are asking the right questions.

  • Gurmeet

    Hi Jesse,

    Thank you for your revert and thoughts. I had not known about your book before coming here, but it is on my urgent “To Read” list. On the side note, I am a great fan of Ken Blanchard. Almost all of the books by him are so powerful and thought changing without getting complicated. He manages to provide complex but important concepts in such a simplistic manner, that you don’t feel burdened or confused at any stage. My all time favorite is “Situational Leadership II”. Not sure how I missed yours.

    About your other post, I had actually read them and do have few questions. I would appreciate if you can clarify.

    1. Your 3 why’s concept: I do find this method really valuable, but one place I get little stuck is, one why only 3 or 5(as suggested by Jim Collins also). Is this to stop at one level, because you can’t keep on going after why’s. Because there is no end to why, for instance, after asking this question, I zeroed down the person to say” It is because I would like to serve the society”. But immediately next questions come why? The next answer is because “I care” and then u are stuck in this loop, why do you care and so on so forth.
    So what I would like to know from you is, where do one stop & how do we identify that specific point?

    2. Another point I would like to get clear is, Can you from your vast experience say that it is possible for a person highly motivated to serve the society or greater good, try doing this by starting an business enterprise and still hold this purpose so core as to take decisions based solely on this aspect even when faced by hard business choices, Specifically in a decade or so time.

    3. And last one, should company as a whole have one core purpose broad enough to work on for infinity or can company can have multiple core purpose, which changes according to circumstances and situations.

    Thank you again for your reply and time



    • Hi Gurmeet,
      1. Usually 3 Whys gets down to a deep enough level. If not, I’ll suggest doing a few more. There’s no set number. This is an old activity from the 1960’s human relations movement and there are many variations on it. I’ve observed that sometimes if people keep at it too long, they lose what’s specific and unique.
      2. If you take a long range view, making hard business decisions based on purpose and values makes good business sense. Consider Johnson and Johnson’s decision to pull ALL stock from the shelves based on only a few bottles of Tylenol being tampered. Contrast it with the decision of the captain of the Costa Concordia to steer close to shore so passengers could get a better view and wave. When purpose and values are not integrated into the business, individuals are left to use their own judgement.
      3. My own opinion is there’s one core purpose. Others may disagree. It does seem like some large conglomerates have multiple purposes, but I’m not convinced they are high performing organizations.

      • Gurmeet

        Thank You Jesse,

        I really appreciate your time and understanding. I also feel that core purpose can’t be more than one and it should be broad enough to endure time. Rest could be called goals to be achieved in specific time period.



  • I just found you on Twitter and I’ll be reading lots more of what you write. Well done.

  • Sergio Rodrigues

    First of all, excuse me for the late comment, due to the fact that I have come across your blog recently. I am in charge of the Human Resources of a state owned financial institution, and my main challenge, as in many others organizations, is how turn HR into a strategic partnership of the company I work for.
    I understand there are a lot of tools to measure the eficiency of the área, but what about the effectiveness, I mean how to associate our work and performance to the results of the organizarion in measurable ways?

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Transforming HR to a strategic partner is an important and difficult task. Much depends on the views of the senior leadership. I would recommend you read some articles by Les Hayman, former Chairman and CEO of SAP EMEA (Europe, ME, and Africa) and President and CEO for SAP Asia-Pacific who delayed his retirement by two years to become global head of HR. His unique experience allows him to see both sides of the equation. I specifically recommend HR…Polite to Police to Partner to Player and HR…Why is No One Listening?

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