Two stories about shared purpose (and one is definitely true)

Silos can be dangerous things for organisations. They usually form when technical specialists in one team or department find it difficult to communicate with other teams. They then form their own sub-culture within the organisation. And before you know it, rather than the organisation being one big team all pulling in the same direction, it’s a number of smaller, sometimes competing teams – all pulling in different directions with no shared vision or purpose.

This situation can also come about through merger and acquisition when new teams with their existing culture are inserted into a new environment.

Either way, the situation can hammer productivity and generally make the workplace a less enjoyable and more frustrating place to be.

These are two of our favourite stories about shared purpose – and how the concept of “purpose” should guide the way everyone in an organisation performs their role. Roles, of course, are all different. An organisation’s purpose, however, should be the same for everyone.

The NASA janitor

We’re not sure if this one is true – but it’s a good tale, so we’ll share it anyway.

President John F Kennedy was visiting NASA in 1961. While he was there, he shook hands with hundreds of members of the wider NASA team. He shook the hand of a guy wearing a janitor’s coverall.

“What do you do?” asked the President.

“Why, I send men to the moon Sir!” said the janitor.

If the janitor only thought in terms of his role, he might have told JFK that he mopped floors or emptied bins. But he was part of one team with one shared vision and purpose – so he knew that keeping the place clean and tidy was an important part of the overall mission. It was the “why” – why he and his hundreds of colleagues arrived at work every morning.

The Disneyland janitor

This story is true – and is often shared by the Disney Institute. (If you ever get a chance to go on one of their leadership workshops or courses, go – they’re brilliant.)

So, a family approached a cleaner at a Disney park and asked him where the parade was going to be taking place.

The chap could have said: “No idea, I’m the cleaner.”

Or he could have smiled and pointed them in the right direction. But at Disney parks, there is one uniting purpose shared by everyone who works in them: Creating magical memories.

So without thinking too much about it, the guy picked up his broom, sang to the kids: “Follow me!” and marched like a band leader, twirling his broom, to take the family to where they needed to be. The kids danced behind him all the way to the route of Disney’s Grand Parade.

His job was keeping everything super-tidy. His purpose was creating magical memories – and he delivered on both.

And in Disney parks across the world, there is now a well-established pattern of cleaning teams creating magical memories.

And Disney cleaners across the world paint water pictures onto the pavements.

Getting people to unite behind a common purpose means:

  1. Articulating your purpose simply and clearly
  2. Showing teams how their work contributes to the purpose
  3. Trusting them to have their own ideas about how to bring the purpose to bear in their work (and supporting them to get it 100% right)
  4. And prioritising purpose in terms of training, time and budget

If you need help articulating your brand purpose and training teams to incorporate it into everyday work life, please get in touch and we’ll set up a Zoom call. We’d love to hear about your ambitions and what you’d like to achieve.