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  • Richard Spilg

Teams with purpose – a recipe for success

I’ve been thinking about the importance of team dynamics and the need for a well-defined sense of purpose when tackling complex projects. And there is currently no more critical project than the rollout of the Covid vaccination programme. Efforts will necessitate intense coordination and collaboration between different entities and teams at both strategic and operational levels.

Clarity of purpose and an understanding of inter-dependencies between all key participants will be critical to the success or otherwise of the project. Due to the multi-faceted nature of the project, and the potential to get bogged down in detail and complexity, it will be important to keep certain fundamentals in mind in order to stay on track.

David Rock [1] contends that lack of certainty is one of the five domains of social experience that our brains treat the same as survival issues – leading to fight, flight or freeze responses. The way that organisations engage and motivate their stakeholders is by giving certainty through a compelling purpose and a clearly articulated vision.

My experience is that organisations run the risk of confusing their message (both internally and externally) if they have too many iterations of essentially the same thing – so I prefer to focus on Purpose, Vision and Strategy, and to state them in a jargon-free way.

  • How you express your organisation’s PURPOSE matters a great deal. This is the ‘WHY’ that establishes your emotional connection with your stakeholders. As per Simon Sinek [2], great leaders start with ‘WHY’ – they understand that people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it

  • PURPOSE informs VISION. The increased focus on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues provides the catalyst to adopt a more holistic approach to business. VISION needs to be imaginative (by definition) and aspirational in the sense that it relates to broader societal imperatives

  • STRATEGY, simply put, is the development of a framework and the means by which an organisation sets out to achieve its purpose, vision and objectives

Using the vaccine rollout as the case in point, a narrow statement of Purpose could be “to vaccinate as many willing people as possible over the next 6 months”. If that was it, the primary focus of the rollout would be logistical – getting supply to distribution centres and the vaccine into as many arms as quickly as possible using all available resources. An associated vision would most likely be fairly narrow and uninspiring.

By contrast, a broader statement of Purpose could be “to inform people about the benefit of the vaccine, listen to and understand any fears or reservations regarding health or other risks, incorporate learnings to enhance the programme, and safely vaccinate as high a percentage of the population as possible in the shortest possible timeframe”. By definition, this statement implies a much broader set of competencies and involvement by a larger group of stakeholders. It would also result in a much bolder vision than the previous example – one that could engage the whole population.

More complexity and more inter-dependencies between and within teams brings significant challenge. And much as everyone will be anxious to get the project started, time needs to be taken to ensure that the overarching purpose and vision for the project is well-defined and clearly articulated. This is the responsibility of Government. As more agencies and organisations with multi-disciplinary skills are brought into the fold, they will each need to clarify their purpose, vision and objectives, which will need to be subsidiary but complementary to the programme’s overarching objectives.

Teams within independent organisations will operate in very different ways to achieve their specific objectives. For example, a private firm responsible for communications may have fully embraced agile working practices; vaccine manufacturers will run agile for product innovation but may still be bureaucratic in relation to quality control; and the Army, if involved in distribution, will operate in a traditionally hierarchical way. An instruction that has the desired effect in the Army will most likely not translate well in a company that has gone full agile!

Values are key to determining purpose. Where there are high levels of inter-dependency, whether between teams from different organisations or teams within in the same organisation, an agreed set of values is critical to building the first foundation for team success - TRUST. Agreed values determine behaviours that are either acceptable or not when the team is together – this creates a ‘psychologically safe’ environment that fosters high levels of trust. And research confirms that only teams with high levels of trust can become high-performing teams.

Absence of trust results in avoidance behaviour and sets the tone for fear of constructive conflict around issues [3]. A reluctance to propose new ideas, build on someone else’s ideas, or constructively challenge bad ideas inevitably results in failure to achieve optimal outcomes. Building and developing successful teams also requires thoughtful and inspirational leadership. This requires managers to embrace the concept of ‘servant leadership’ – no longer bosses, but coaches who remove impediments and clear the way for their teams to provide value by remaining focused and creative [4].

Richard Spilg

February 2021


1 David Rock (2009). Your Brain at Work

2 Simon Sinek (2009). Start with Why

3 Patrick Lencioni (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

4 Stephen Denning (2018). The Age of Agile

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