Let go of purpose and open up to imagining the possible

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a new team must be in want of a good purpose. And to continue misquoting Pride and Prejudice, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of team leaders that work on purpose is often seen as the rightful first step in any team development work.

Jane Austen could see the limitations of the fixed mindset. Yet in the 21st century, leaders continue to work with a fixed, mechanistic world view, where team leadership is about defining vision, mission and purpose, and aligning resources, roles, responsibilities and skills to delivering on that purpose.

And coaches and consultants, like me, have fallen into the same trap. A team needs a clear purpose, a definition of success, and measures, to create clarity, agreement, and alignment. We have all been involved in important debate and discussion on identifying the overarching goals, and defining the team purpose. 

We need to shift from defining purpose, to opening up possibility.

It’s not wrong to find and define a common team purpose, but there is a question to ask first if you want to inspire a team, and draw on its collective resources and capabilities. 

The question, and focus that helps, is to stimulate imagination and possibility. I ask, “what are the possibilities that you can imagine for this team?”

To some, this might seem semantics or an adjustment in terminology. For team leaders, it is a vital shift in where they focus attention and energy in their leadership team.

The old way, the fixed mindset, is to ask a team to apply convergent thinking, and to close down possibilities, to create a team purpose with everyone’s buy in. And that’s why it can be exhausting – it can become a process of word smithing to create a statement that everyone can sign up to, and yet somehow once out of the room quickly loses its power and relevance.

The new way, the growth mindset (to borrow from Carol Dweck), is to stimulate divergent thinking, curiosity, and to open up new possibilities.

It is to take a first step as a team as a learning team, one that is prepared to explore and discover.  It's being prepared to cultivate and develop practices and behaviours as a team that will not only ensure current success, but also future adaptability. It’s what’s needed in today’s increasingly complex and fast changing business environment.

That’s why I challenge leaders to let go of purpose. If they really want to shape up their team for the future, they need to open up to imagining what’s possible.

Willson Hau