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Thought Piece | Process Design 101: A Lesson on Purpose by Lewis Carroll

Chiara Rosselli, Executive Director, APROPOS Group

The other day, I dedicated an afternoon to a friend in need and designed a Purpose Hunt Mini Workshop for her.

As we went through the exercises, more than once, I saw dread flash in her eyes. Confronting those simple yet profound questions was uncomfortable.

It reminded me of how toxic a lack of sense of purpose can be.

It affects against what criteria (or lack thereof!) we judge ourselves and how we measure whether we are where we are supposed to be in life. It can make us feel confused and paralyse us. We agonise over our next steps as we desperately scramble to choose “the right direction” - all the while ignoring why we should be taking any steps at all.

As part of my Process Design 101 series, today I am writing about how the same is true when designing a meeting, a conference, or any other process.

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there

When I first encountered this quote by Lewis Carroll, it immediately became one of my favourites. I didn’t read it as a cautionary tale about getting lost in life, but rather a reminder to enjoy the journey, no matter what. But when it comes to process design this quote reveals its dark side.

There are some obvious reasons why processes with fuzzy purposes lead to disastrous outcomes. First and foremost it is a waste of everyone’s time, but the ramifications are deeper still and could leave you paying the price for years.

Here are a few reasons why:

  1. No Purpose, No Problem (& that’s precisely the problem). Without a clear understanding of why we are undergoing a given process or hosting a given event, we won’t be able to know if we have succeeded in our ambitions or whether we’ve steered off course and need to adjust. With a clear, detailed, (better still if it’s written down) purpose statement, you can stay accountable and make others accountable too. It’s time to be done with generalised debrief statements along the lines of “it was a good event”, “we had interesting discussions” - and start checking your actual progress against your intended outcomes.

  2. Burned Bridges. Everyone hates to waste time, but every time you engage someone in an exercise without a clear understanding of the intended outcome, you are eroding at the trust capital you have available with that stakeholder and your credibility takes a hit (you will not see this in your feedback forms until it is too late). Stakeholder backlash can be brutal and definitive, especially if a lack of purpose-driven design, incites sensitive hopes or expectations in your participants that you are ultimately incapable to meet, or may even end up insulting. If you work in the political sector this warning is more relevant than you’d imagine. Ensuring those you involve in your process are well aware of the motivation and logic behind your efforts is crucial to ensure expectations are aligned and you don’t have disgruntled customers that can ruin your reputation or sabotage your process.

  3. Paralysis. This one is so straight forward it hurts to spell it out but it shows up in sneaky ways. Whether we are talking about a political dialogue, a strategic consultation, or a recurring office meeting, if your processes seem to go nowhere and a general sense of paralysis over “what should we do next” takes over - then you probably have a fuzzy purpose problem. The good news is it’s fixable. You may need to break the purpose down into a set of smaller more precise sub-set of purposes, or you may have to go back to the drawing board altogether and start from an alignment of stakeholders of why we need this process in the first place. Knowing what the name of the game is, stakeholders will be able to imagine actionable next steps with more ease than if they are left confused or unconvinced about the true motives and objectives of a given process. If they can understand what success looks like, then they can start to work on generating ideas for solutions. It won’t and shouldn’t work the other way around. With a “jumping to solutions” approach, you can easily waste years and years of potential progress just because you skipped the important step of defining and refining your purpose.

It can be uncomfortable to face a very basic questioning of why we do the things we do...especially if we have been doing them for years.

Why do we have this Annual Dialogue? Why are we really consulting citizens on this? Why do these employees need to be trained in this new technology? Why do we have an office meeting every Monday? Why must I end this research project with a conference?

The answers we are used to giving to these questions are often platitudes, automatic replies we’ve unconsciously programmed into our brains so we don’t have to make ourselves uncomfortable.

Often, fuzzy purposes are an innocent oversight (although of course, sometimes they are not) - yet they can have disastrous consequences and derail years of progress.


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