Sari van Poelje

personal, expert, consultant, author, Speaker

From Why to What to How – what’s your purpose? — February 12, 2019

From Why to What to How – what’s your purpose?

One of the enduring factors in creating an agile and innovative business is purpose. Purpose answers the question: why do we do what we do? It gives a sense of determination to your ambition and direction. It gives a different flavour to your work then a  vision, mission or strategy. To me a vision provides a point on the horizon, the guiding light for your ambition. A mission directs the task that will lead you to your vision. And a strategy is a process or road map to realize your vision.

Purpose makes economic sense

Jim Stengel, ex-CMO of Procter & Gamble, postulated in his book Grow (2011) that there is a very sound economic argument for a focus on purpose. A ten-year study of the growth of 50,000 brands shows that companies with ideals to improve people’s lives at the center of all they do outperform the market by a huge margin. The world’s fastest growing brands are organized around ideals. The top 25 like Apple, Red Bull, Google and Starbucks – excel at clarity, consistency, commitment and creativity.

Ignoring the flaws in Stengel’s research (he didn’t compare with the worst performing brands to demonstrate the opposite, for example) the idea is intriguing and endearing. According to research done by R. Sisodia (2007, Firms of endearment) and Edelman (The good purpose study, 2013) a company based on purpose has distinct advantages:

  • Get and keep best employees: 1.4 x more engaged, 1.7 x more satisfied, 3 x more likely to stay
  • Attract, retain and engage customers: 89% of the clients believe a purpose driven company will deliver highest quality, 72% of global consumers would recommend a company with a purpose (up from 39% in 2008)
  • Increase return for shareholders: 10x purpose led companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 10x between 1996 and 2011, 120% meaningful brands connected to human well being outperformed the stock market by 120% in 2013

So, how do you, as a business find your purpose?

How to find your purpose

Purpose can be best found on the intersection of:

  • Personal desire: transforming pain into contribution
  • Customer dreams: connect with the core values of the people you serve
  • Business direction: creating value together

We’re going to look at how we can use the idea of the Hero’s Journey to consider our business purpose and how we can write the business story that serves our personal desires, our customer’s dreams and the business direction.

Let’s first consider personal desire. Humans are not just the sum of our experience or even our relationships. We are ultimately the sum of our stories. It is not the events in our lives that determine our actions, but the interpretation of those events.

For example, I could describe my expat childhood in very different ways. I could tell you a story of a nomadic existence, with a subsequent lack of belonging or feeling of home. Or I could tell you a story of the rich cultural experiences we had and the opportunity to build friendships all over the world. Of course both stories could be true. But the important thing is: depending on the story I choose, my experience of life will differ.

Narrative theories, like J. Campbell’s “The hero with a thousand faces” (1947) and Berne’s Transactional Analysis, can help frame this idea. Within TA we believe that people create a life script at a very early age, a story about who we will be when they grow up. This story informs our actions like a kind of bass tone in our lives, and determines many of the main themes that run through our personal, relational and professional lives.

Formally we define a life script as follows: A script is an unconscious life plan learned in early childhood, reinforced by parents and reinforced by later events, resulting in a known pay-off.

The same holds true for organizations. At the cultural level, it is the script beliefs of founders, reinterpreted by successive generations of company leaders, that influence the culture in a company. Your leadership, what you have learnt through it, how you write the story of your learning, in part determines the purpose of your organisation.

RATE: Radical Agile Transformation Exercise: Review your key learning moments

You have probably already completed the RATE exercise from a few months ago. Things will have changed in the intervening months. It’s important to regularly review what you have learnt, so go ahead and revise your answers to the questions from What are the key learning moments in your leadership?

Bibliography: References & links

A culture of purpose: how to choose the right people and make the right people choose you, Lueneburger, C, Jossey-Bass, 2014

Common purpose, Kurtzman, J & Goldsmith, M, Jossey-Bass, 2010

Firms of endearment: how world class companies profit from passion and purpose, Sisodia, RS, Seth, J & Wolfe, D, Pearson Education, 2014

Lead with purpose, Baldoni, J, AMACOM, 2011

Passion and purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, Coleman, J, Gulati, D et al., Harvard Business Review, 2011

Start with why, Sinek, S, Penguin Group, 2009

The happiness of pursuit, Guillebeau, C, Harmony, 2014

The purpose economy, Hurst, A, Elevate, 2014

What On Earth Am I Here For? Rick Warren, Zondervan, 2012

Grow, Stengel, J, Crown Business, 2011

Business Innovation Gaps – Short Case Study – video — January 18, 2019
Jobs to be done – video training — January 9, 2019

Jobs to be done – video training



In this video I take you through an example with a client of uncovering the jobs to be done. We talked about using the Pains, Gains and Jobs to be done model in an earlier article.


The jobs they need done are very specific and very pragmatic.

Chris, if I can use you as an example? You have a wonderful hairdressing business.

One of the things you keep asking is, “Who is my client?”

You client is usually a woman, 30 to 40 years old, she’s of this social economic class. Her worries are that she doesn’t look good because she’s become a mother, she works, she’s harassed all the time and she has to juggle her jobs.

So the more you know about your client you’re thinking okay what’s the job to be done here? Well I want to look good while I’m doing all these things but I don’t have any time.

As a fantasy. We’re creating stories here about our clients, the more you can create a story about your client the more you’ll be able to innovate your products. That’s the idea.

So you’re thinking about that scene and the next step is going to be how can you leverage your assets?

So, Chris might be saying, “Oh wow, this is my client at the moment and they have to come to the shop to do this through that traffic. Now that’s not really gonna help them look good, feel
less harassed and juggle rolls.”

But what could do that, is how about if we start a service that we get high-end clients and we go to their homes to do it. Now there I’m working to purpose and I’m actually solving for my customer a job to be done.

Do you understand the thinking? It’s quite different from what people usually do, they go okay what can I do, that’s what I’m gonna put out there.

We’re thinking differently. I would encourage you to do when you get home is create a customer avatar. Cut out pictures out of magazines and stuff and make a mosaic of everything you know about your customer. That’s the first step.

Engaging customers – how do you know who you really want to work with? — December 12, 2018

Engaging customers – how do you know who you really want to work with?

Engaging customers – how do you know who you really want to work with?

Love your customers, and your customers will love you back

I like to work with customers who are willing to do the personal and professional transformation to become innovative and agile. If I look at my customer set, they’re usually between 32 and 55 years old. They already have work experience, but they either want to be able to create sustainable change or innovate their business. I understand them, I like them, they happen to be like me, and fortunately they can afford to work with me!

In a recent article we looked at why you needed to explore, engage and extrapolate to discover the pains, gains and jobs to be done of your customer. This is part of understanding what your customer wants before they even know. Now, let’s have a look at the engage part of the looping, and decide what customers you want to engage in the future and start building a customer map.

Of course, you know who your customers are today. Over the years you will have built up and attracted a certain type of customer based on your activities and products, and on who you are. These are your traditional customers.

Now we need to decide which customers you know, you like and can afford you given your new sense of purpose. That may be a completely different set of customers than you have today.


Know yourself, know your customers

Let’s start with knowing. Ask yourself, ‘What customers do I know?’

Knowing customers doesn’t mean you know their statistics, data, and stereotypes. It means you know their problems profoundly, probably because you are like them. In the agricultural machinery business that I work with, the founder was a farmer who couldn’t afford the machines he needed and started to make his own machinery. He now builds machines for farmers who are discerning in what machines they use because they’re engineers and farmers too.

So knowing means you have to know yourself first, then ask:

  • What stages did I go through in life?
  • What were my problems, issues, needs, trends in that period of my life?
  • What are the emerging problems, issues, needs, and trends?
  • What do I know deeply to be true about this customer based on my own experience, but also the experience I have gathered in serving this customer?

We know that if you base your business on customers you know, you’ll build a sustainable business because they grow as you grow.

Customers you like

Now let’s consider which customers you like. So, of all the customers you know make a subset of those you like. If you can’t find anything to like in your customer, you’re in the wrong business. If you’re in it for the long-term you have to like your customers, perhaps even love them.

The customer map is a shared work in progress. It’s not just a photo, it’s a film, continuously in development.

Customers who can afford you

Now you need to figure out which customers can afford you. There are two ways to go about that.

  1. Return on customer investment: One way is to think about the return on investment you want at the end of the year. Traditional businesses want to maximize profits and shareholder value every year – this is what we’ve put in, this is what we want to get out.Businesses that are most innovative and agile, look for customers that can also afford their contribution to society. In our experience organizations that only focus on maximizing profits usually have short-term cycles of production and innovation, and that does not help them to create sustainable income.
  1. Work backwards: The other way to calculate which customers can afford you, if you’re a startup business or a solo business, is to think backwards. Ask yourself what income you want to have and then calculate backwards to work out what you need to make every month, every week, every engagement. You might find, surprisingly, you come to very different calculations than if you just go for maximizing profit.

So, we know the pains, gains and jobs to be done, we know what customers you want to engage (know, like, and afford) now it’s time to create a customer map.

Radical Agile Transformation Exercise: Create a customer map

Based on the exploration and engagement activities we ask senior leaders to make a mosaic, a mood board or a customer map.

On the wall in your agile war room put:

  1. The pains gains and jobs to be done of your customer.
  2. List the types of customers who you know, like and can afford you.
  3. Add photos of real customers if possible, make the map realistic.
  4. Give each customer avatar a name, write down their problems, issues, needs and trends, to create a customer map.
  5. Hang the customer maps in the hallway from workplace to canteen with magazines, scissors and glue underneath so that any employee can add to the map as they go by.

These customer maps become works of art over time. Hang them in your lobby behind the reception desk. Write your purpose above them, ‘This is why we do what we do, and this is who we do it for.’


Mine the business innovation gaps: Seasonal sharing for scalability — December 4, 2018

Mine the business innovation gaps: Seasonal sharing for scalability

I’ve been working with an agriculture machinery company over the years. This family run business designs and manufactures huge innovative machines that solve the current problems farmers face. Their industry is subject to the seasons, which means all farmers want new machines just before the harvest, so there’s a big peak of work in the period running up to harvest time, roughly from April till September in Europe. When the harvest is done, there is a downtime in these factories.

Of course, the company doesn’t want to lay-off it’s workforce, nor have a factory shut down and workers idle for six months of the year. So we looked to other industries to spot a business innovation gap, that would allow them to continue to make money even in the off-season. We found that the joiners, welders and assembly people are very profitable for the car industry. So, now there’s a possibility to make an exchange of labour between the two industries, and that makes both industries more scalable.

Many organizations are quite old fashioned, frequently with a sub-organization, a department, or a satellite organization busy with product innovation in splendid isolation. When you are slow to mine the innovation gaps – not only for your product, but also for your business – you leave money on the table, a workforce under-utilized and customers unsatisfied.

Every time you think of a product or service innovation, your reflex has to be, ‘How do we have to innovate the business to support this?’

RATE: Radical Agile Transformation Exercise

The next question you should ask is, ‘What consequences should this have on the structure of my business?’

One way to mine the innovation gap is to make a customer analysis: what do they need to diminish their pain, enhance their gains and accelerate their jobs to be done?

And then check if your assets actually allow you to support them. For instance:

  • Do your products or services diminish pain or enhance gains?
  • Do you have key people who you can outsource to the client to accelerate their jobs to be done?
  • Do you have excess factory space that others could use?
  • Do you have innovative processes that could help others achieve their goals?


We are moving towards a sharing economy, where the name of the game is not proudly invented here, but proudly co-created with others.