Mary Parker Follett, a pioneering business consultant, was asked to help a troubled window shade company. The company’s thinking was narrow and limited. When asked to define their business, they said, “We produce window shades.”

She asked them “What business are you really in from your customer’s point of view?” In other words, why do people buy window shades?

They realized they were really in the light control and privacy business. They turned their business around by developing creative ways to control light and create privacy for windows.

I asked the same question at Stanley Magic Door, a manufacturer of automatic doors. When they considered what business they were really in from their customer’s point of view, they realized they were in the business of “facilitating and controlling the access of people and objects through buildings.” As a result they identified new business opportunities, new directions, and changed the name of their company to Access Technologies.

The same lesson applies to teams

A few years ago the accounting department of a Fortune 1000 company told me their biggest problem was lack of cooperation from other departments – they did not receive the information they needed to create their reports in a timely manner and often had to go hunt it down.

They believed their job was to collect and organize financial information and that it was everyone else’s job to provide the information they requested.

Interestingly, when I spoke with people in the other departments, they didn’t see it the same way.  They referred to the accounting department as the numbers police”–  constantly requesting information and providing them with nothing to help them do their own job.  No wonder they were slow to supply the requested information, receipts and records.

At a team meeting the accounting department considered how they were viewed by other departments and the question “What business are you really in?” They realized  their purpose was to provide accurate, timely information and advice to guide leaders in wise financial decision making and to protect the company by ensuring compliance with legal requirements.

It’s a big shift to stop defining your work from the perspective of your activities to define it from the perspective of the users of your services.

As a result of making that shift, the accounting department stopped demanding information in order to complete activities. They started talking with leaders to find out what information they needed, when, and in what format.  Magically their credibility increased tenfold, and they became seen as real business partners.

What business is your team really in?

While most people will agree that a clearly understood purpose is an essential component for a team, many people define their team’s purpose from the perspective of the services or products they provide. And they become like the numbers police,” frustrated by the lack of cooperation and credibility.

Effective leaders define their team’s purpose from the viewpoint of those who benefit from their services and products, and help their team understand what business they’re really in.

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