The Tricky Question of “Purpose”

When creating or ‘improving’ some kind of product, business process or service, a question that will often crop up is that of purpose.  We might (quite logically) ask what the underlying purpose of the thing is, and we might even be tempted to define some kind of measures around what ‘success’ looks like.

As outlined in my previous article, what ‘success looks like’ is very likely to vary depending on who we ask.  It stands to reason that the perceived purpose (i.e. what ‘ought’ to be) is likely to vary too.  Ask ten people what an insurance company’s primary purpose ought to be and you’ll get ten different answers—probably all of which are valid.  (“Make money”, “protect policyholders”, “provide information so as to reduce risk” might be three possibilities).  If the insurance company is to be successful an ‘accommodation’ 1 between a range of possible and valid perspectives is likely to emerge.  Lurch too far to one extreme and the viability of the organisation comes into question.  The challenge is understanding which perspectives are key—which form environmental constraints (e.g. regulation) and which others lead to strategic choices (e.g. which markets or customer segments to focus on).

These types of considerations apply at a more granular level also.  Not only can we ask ‘what is the purpose of this company’ we can also ask ‘what is the purpose of this product/service/process’.  Almost certainly the same types of differences in perspective will occur.  Don’t believe me?  Ask three people what the underlying purpose of the “Issue parking ticket when someone has parked illegally” process is (i.e. why it is done).  You’ll likely get a range of opinions from “make money”, “increase safety” or “to ensure the rule of law is respected”. 

A key organisational blind-spot, in my experience at least, is organisations assume the purpose they ascribe to a product/service/process will precisely match the purpose that the customers or ‘service users’ ascribe.  This tends to happen where there is little, if any, interaction with anyone actually affected by the thing being built or improved; services are designed in a ‘bubble’.  Sadly whilst this is done with the best of intentions, it leads to fundamentally frustrating experiences for those folks who end up actually wanting to interact with the organisation.  “All I want to do is make a one-off charity donation via the web, why do I have to create an account with a password and disclose all sorts of other personal information?”.  The answer might be because the charity in question had a very different purpose in mind for that process—they think you want to be kept informed of the good work they are doing, and they want to contact you to ‘maximise’ future donations.  They might perceive it as a ‘recruit donor’ process, not a ‘make donation’ process.  I suspect few cash donations would be given in collection tins if ‘setting up an account’ and giving information to make a giftaid donation was necessary.  Of course, I’m being deliberately provocative here; in reality many charities do have a one-off donation form, however it illustrates the point.

A key point here is if organisations work in a ‘bubble’ without understanding their stakeholders, it is likely that their processes will diverge from what is actually desired or needed by those who actually use them.  This puts the organisation at risk of customers leaving (in the private sector), or citizens either not being able to, or choosing not to, engage (in the public sector).  At this point the ‘bubble’ gets burst and there is likely to be genuine organisational confusion.  “Why is nobody interacting with our new service?”.  Perhaps it’s because nobody wanted it in the first place.  “We clearly need to start educating them so that they use it”.  Err… really?

Emergent Purpose

Another consideration that we should keep in mind is that most of the time we simply don’t know how someone will use something until they actually start interacting with it.  People find new purposes for things all of the time.  I suspect the inventor of the telephone had no idea it would be used for chat-lines. The inventor of the chainsaw probably didn’t anticipate that it would be used as a weapon.

Let’s take a slightly less grizzly example.  Take a look at the picture below, what do you see?

You probably answered “steps”, and you’d be right (or, more accurately, that’s also what I see highlighted in the picture—there may be other things too).  These steps are in Castle Field, Southsea, near where I live.  Now, what, in your view are those steps for?

A hill in a field with a wide set of steps

You probably answered “for getting up and down the hill”, and that would be a reasonable answer.   I have no idea how old these steps are—they are near Southsea Castle and at the top of the hill there are what appear to be battlements (presumably where cannons would be mounted), but I suspect these steps were a much later addition.

Whenever they were built, I suspect the intended purpose was, indeed to help people get up and down the hill.  Yet this isn’t the only thing they are used for today.  Go to Castle Fields any weekend or early weekday morning and you’ll see people running up, and down, the steps repeatedly.  There are people who use the steps as mechanisms to exercise.  I suspect this wasn’t anticipated when they were built… it is a purpose that ‘emerged’ as people saw an opportunity and just did it. 

Understand perspectives, Test and Learn

All of this highlights the importance of us understanding perspectives2, formulating a view of the ‘solution’ or ‘intervention’ that we plan to make but then testing and learning.  In project-speak we might introduce a ‘prototyping’ or ‘pilot’ stage.  Using the example above we might show people a sketch of the steps and say ‘what would you use these for?’ and ‘how would you use these?’.  We might build a single, smaller set of steps and observe how people use them, then adapt them as we learn more, or if the context called for it we might even carry out multiple experiments simultaneously.As we better understand the range of perspectives we might even find we adapt the scope or decide to build something different instead.

These ideas fit well with the broader discussions of organisational agility, i.e. having the ability to understand and sense what is happening in the environment, decide and then make a change.4

But most of all, we ought to call out situations where there is a ‘bubble’ and an organisation is unknowingly ascribing it’s purpose onto its products, processes or services.


This article is kindly supported by the Building Business Capability Conference.  All opinions expressed are my own.

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References & Further Reading/Footnotes

  1. For more about the concept of an ‘accommodation’ in this context (and how it is different from consensus) see the work of Checkland, for example Checkland & Scholes, 1999, pp.29-30
  2. Another ‘lens’ on the idea of understanding perspectives is the ‘consider perspectives’ stage of the Business Analysis Process Model shown in Paul et al (2014), fig4.2
  3. See also Dave Snowden & Cognitive Edge’s concept of ‘Safe to fail probes’
  4. Although beyond the scope of what is discussed here, it’s worth referring to Teece et al’s work on ‘dynamic capabilities’

You may also be interested in the works of Stafford Beer. This brief intro to the concept of POSIWID and VSM may be of interest too.


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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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4 thoughts on “The Tricky Question of “Purpose””

  1. Adrian, ,I think a good example of emergent usage is Facebook. It started as a way for university students to tell each other where the parties were, how wasted they were last night. and did you see that cute girl/boy in Prof. Henderson’s class this morning. Look at it now. I don’t supose that the originators of Twitter thought that the US government would be run on Twitter. — James

  2. It’s also interesting to think how the council might respond to this new use (as I guess they are the ‘owner’ of the steps). If people are using them for exercise in the winter will the council be nervous about how slippery they might get and try to ban the new use, for fear of a law suit? Or will they pay out to have a nonslip coating added to make them safer? How would that interfere with a (hypothetical) need to conserve a local historical monument? How the owner responds to an unexpected new usage of the product is very illustrative of the culture!

    1. Gosh, Caroline, what a really interesting point! That is very true. Sprinboarding from that, how might local businesses react… E.g..might open-air “pop up” smoothie stands appear, or even “pop up” outside gyms (particularly relevant until consumer confidence returns about exercising inside gyms).

      Thanks for the comment, that’s really thought provoking 😀

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