Third Person: Free e-book on purpose mapping

E-book on purpose mapping


Over the last three years I have experimented and tested a way of helping individuals, teams, organisations and wider whole systems to map their collective sense of purpose. One of the motivations for this work has been to help create an approach that businesses and organisations find understandable, engaging and fun, and richly insightful.  Having now refined this practice I felt the time was right to share the learning in the hope of serving this systemic type of work and its practical usefulness.

I have been mindful of the powerful ways by which the choices that I made in terms of the presenting language, with its associated metaphors and theoretical concepts can go one of two ways: they either land well and make intuitive sense to the audience or they can be a major barrier and get in the way and require translation to the extent that add confusion or ‘trigger’ resistance.

So, this is a word of caution and celebration at the same time. Whilst I have carefully refined this language, its metaphors and concepts you might want to ask yourself: “Will this language work for my organisation or audience”?

What do I mean by purpose mapping?

What I mean by idea, is that this we create a concept map using floor markers (pieces of paper) that we call map elements, from which a team(s) can co-create their collective understanding of their purpose. In terms of an operational definition I normally start the session after a check-in exercise (more on that a little later) with a simple description on a flip-chart that demonstrates the connections and differences between ‘what’ they do, ‘how’ they do their work via tools, and then finally ‘why’ they do their work: the purpose.

In this included example (see the diagram), you can see that the team were making sense of their purpose by two different clusters. The first green cluster was framed around the purpose of keeping citizens, families and communities safe. The second emergent theme in yellow they framed by both understanding the correct identify of our citizens and ensuring that our national infrastructure was reliable/safe. Following a short coffee break and dialogue the team soon came to view their shared purpose as keeping the ‘citizens safe’. Next, they noted a work-flow in and between both sub-teams. This was the necessary but not sufficient flow of sharing of real-time data and intelligence.

This insight of the flow of inter-dependent work and what was needed in terms of sub-team collaboration emerged through dialogue. Thus, there is a psychological and indeed emotional ‘shift’ that enables both sub-teams to (quite literally) see what it is that they are serving. It is this felt sense of professional service that gives rise to new forms of cooperation and collaboration. It moves the team members from a departmental team silo mentality to a different whole system view. The teams attending such a workshop are often ‘moved’ and feel more ‘connected’ to their shared purpose together. Next, their relationships deepen with new levels of emergent behaviour such as openness, trust, vulnerability and courage. These types of emergent behaviour help the identification of new forms of knowing and therefore new ways of working. These fresh insights also gave rise to practical innovation, such as for example, the ways to co-solve (seemingly intractable) problems; such as sharing real-time data and intelligence that serves not silo self-interests but rather their purpose: their ‘why’. These insights and trust help teams to find new energy to flourish and enjoy their jobs as they clarify what work is linked to their purpose and what ‘work’ serves other needs such as power politics and self-interest.

Next, in my experience individuals and teams find describing what they do on a ‘day-to-day’ basis quite straight-forward and easy and they also have no problem in describing the different tools that they use to collaborate with together. This comes to the mind with relative ease. I have also noticed that the deeper question of why they do this work is more profound. I takes some facilitation skill to create the right environment for this deeper level. To help this deeper level of work I have found that most team members as individuals find it easier to work in dyads as a time-boxed activity to help them focus (see agenda below). I have found that by encouraging them to share their important work and the tools that they use to get them soon gets the conversation started. In effect, I invite them to co-coach one another.

This work adds value. There is strong evidence that teams that understand their purpose perform better and that their team members are more innovative, resilient and enjoy their work more than those that those teams that do not make the connection to their purpose. For example in Don Yaeger’s popular book entitled “Great Teams 16 Things High-Performing Organizations Do Differently” his primary or first important pillar is that great teams understand their ‘why’ or their purpose. This is an encouraging frame of reference for engaging teams that are considering this approach. What are the benefits we have found over the last three years?

 What are the benefits?

There are six key benefits that I have noticed over the last three years and these are:

  1. Participatory because each person is invited to decide what purpose elements they are going to share and describe
  2. Empowering because each person’s contribution is accepted in good faith as valid and is therefore not called into question
  3. Dialogical because the team members are invited to ask questions of one another when they place their respective map elements. The questions have an ethical or values-base which is that they are asking to seek understanding or clarification
  4. Engaging because teams enjoy learning from each other in contexts that have the right environment
  5. Seriously fun because teams find this ‘serious play’ productive; they enjoy using low technical solutions it gives rise to life affirming relational energy
  6. Powerful because teams can rich insights from unpacking their stories, assumptions and seeing the ‘whole from the parts’

Of course, there might be many more benefits that I have not noticed and you might want to be curious about what other benefits flow for you and those that you serve using this approach?

About method

In this section I hope to do three things. Firstly, to point to some ethical principles and values that I have found useful and then remind you that this is not some kind of orthodoxy. Please experiment with different approaches and over time find better ways that serve you. Next, I will outline a typical agenda and some indicative timings. The timings are for a team of between 20 to 25 people. Lastly, I will share some lessons that I have learned that have shaped some of the choices that I have made along my own experimental journey.

Agenda (Example)

  1. Welcome from the host or leader  (10 mins)
  2. Overview of the session from the facilitator (10 mins)
  3. Check-In or Warm-Up Exercise (10 mins)
  4. What is the purpose of the team in dyads (12 mins)
  5. Practical ethics and values (10 mins)
  6. Creating the purpose map together (50 mins)
  7. Dialogue: What have we noticed? (30 mins)
  8. Bring in your stakeholders (25 mins)
  9. Check out: learning (10 mins)

My learning notes on working with the suggested agenda items


  1. This is a few minutes for the senior leader to welcome all the team, and to provide the legitimacy for the session. It can provide the ‘back story’ for the event and frame the time together.
  2. In this section as the facilitator I provide an overview and acknowledge any group anxieties and concerns that might be showing-up. I also invite questions from the team members to help them to settle in.
  3. For the warm-up exercise I invite those present to work with someone that they don’t know very well. I explain that this is helpful to both develop new relationships and at the same time to bring some different perspectives to the exercise.
  4. Next, I invite them to work in pairs each taking three or four minutes to explain to the other what work they do, and then drop down into its purpose. This is the ‘why’ or the reason the work is needed given the team the person is in. After five minutes the other person takes their turn to repeat the exercise. This gives us one purpose map element on an A4 piece of paper each.
  5. For this part I outline three rules or ethical principles that I have found to be valuable. The first rule is that each person’s purpose element is taken in good faith and if you like as a given. The second is linked to the first and explains that any questions about another person’s map element is for the questioner to further clarify the meaning (not the legitimacy) of the map element. Lastly, I explain that the person finds the right place when it is their turn to locate it on the map when they start to co-create or build the map on the floor together.
  6. For this fun and engaging part I simply start with a volunteer and I invite them to share their map element. Generally, as the facilitator I stand opposite them on the floor and I invite them to explain their mapping element and find their right place on the floor. Obviously, the first person has the total floor space to choose from. Once they are settled on a place; I invite them to stand next to the mapping element and I invite any questions. I remind the team of the first ethical rule by adding something like “And remember the questions are generative to seek to further your understanding not to call into question the map element?”. The person that answers any questions and perhaps as the facilitator if they are genuinely unclear, I might assist the dialogue. Sometimes and not often I invite the person to share a short story that helps understanding of ‘where they are coming from’.
  7. For this activity as the facilitator I invite or frame questions that enable the team members to see the connections between the whole map and the parts; to be curious about the clusters and emergent meaning making; and much more that is best captured by ‘being in the moment’ with the team dynamics. Some of the additional options and choices are detailed in the next section. For the more curious practitioner I would recommend some training in systemic coaching and constellations to appreciate the core principles of this work to take you to the next level if you so wish.
  8. I have found that it is very informative for the team to include their stakeholders. This is because most teams understandably a map from their own perspectives. This can often be quite ‘inward looking’ for valid reasons. By bringing in stakeholders helps the team to identify additional purpose map elements that might well be missing from their original set. This realisation and adjustments to the map as the additional dialogue and learning is rich for the team. For this activity I simply invite them to think of four important stakeholders for the team. This might be internal and external. I always bring in ‘the customers’ or clients or benefactors from the team’s purpose and work.  I have been pleasantly surprised that within all the teams to date there are team members that have easily role played a stakeholder. Some have found that by imagining a real person this helps. I have also invited them to ‘represent’ the stakeholder. This idea or language is taken from systemic coaching and you can read more about that as and when. Stated simply, as the facilitator I guide the representative to find their right place on the map. The person role playing will then stand in the place that is most important for the stakeholder. With ease I then invite a dialogue between the stakeholder and the team in terms of why they are stood where they are; and what they notice and so-on.  A wealth of information is often forthcoming which helps the team to appreciate the stakeholder’s view of their purpose and also to create any mapping elements that are missing given their feedback.9.
  9. For the feedback session we are either standing or sitting around the purpose map. I invite each team member to share in a sentence or two how they have found the mapping session, and lastly, what they have learned that has been useful. Again, we have noticed that listening and learning from each of the team in this way is added value.

To consider as extra options, choices and your creativity.

There are some additional bonus tracks that can add value and insight. To date I have explored with different teams the following four options:

  1. Work Flow
  2. Communication and Messaging
  3. Blockers and Issues
  4. Future Vision and Action Planning

I will outline each of these in turn and the invitation stands as previously for you to find your own approach that works for you and at the same time ‘being open’ to new possibilities.

  1. Work Flow

For this option we are looking to map the flow in and between the team’s purpose (perhaps clustered themes) and different stakeholders. In these ways I use different coloured arrows to signify the flow of work from a clustered theme to a stakeholder(s). We also notice the flow internally between larger systems or teams. This can help different teams more realise or notice the added value in and between the teams that together are the whole system or directorate for example. In this example above, you can see a bi-directional arrow that signifies the work that flows between both teams or departments.

  1. Communication and Messaging

This option seeks to explore the feedback from different stakeholders in terms of the communication channels and messaging frequency for example. This is achieved by inviting the role-playing stakeholder to find their place of interest on the completed purpose map. In turn, the facilitator invites dialogue between the stakeholder and the team in terms of the ways by which the communications focus on the most engaging content (linked to the map position) and then explores the channels that meet their needs etc.

To date, each of the 12 teams that have used this option all of them have had rich insights that challenged their assumptions. This has often moved the team from a one size fits all to a more nuanced and engaging (curious) communications approach. In this example we have included two stakeholders given the purpose. The first persona is a 13-year-old girl that has gone missing. For the team listening to the feedback from the role playing can be both emotionally moved and help them to be ‘seen’ by the team members. In this way, they often feel revitalised and refreshing acknowledging those that they are serving. He second persona is a man of 42 years old that has arrived at the UK claiming to be fleeing persecution.

  1. Blockers and Issues

This option follows the completed purpose map by creating the space for dialogue. I have found that having a coffee/tea break before the start of this option is well timed. I would recommend around 20 minutes. On their return have a circle of chairs for the team with the map in the middle as a visual reminder of their collective purpose. The light touch facilitation can then open-up the dialogue as the team explore what the current blockers and issues are for the team’s purpose or associated plan or strategy. In several teams they have co-created a new vision that they have some distance from the purpose map to remind them of the direction and nature of the journey. In one whole system team event there was such a shared sense of energy to make improvements from the four identified blockers that I changed the approach in response by having four sub-teams with a nominated facilitator as they explored and in turn agreed a small set of high impact actions that they would make. In this example you can see the whole system have identified the wider systemic blocker as getting in the way of their shared or collective sense of purpose. The team with deeper levels of openness and trust start to identify the cultural and governance issues that they are going to co-solve with renewed determination and resilience and collective accountability.

  1. Strategic Scenario Planning

In this option I brought together 21 senior digital leaders to make sense of their digital transformation strategy. You can read more about this on the blog on the second person section of the website.

However, stated briefly, we created a 2 x 2 Boston matrix with the traditional two axes in a large Conference room. One axis for external customer experience and the second for technical adoption. We then created five different strategic scenarios. These were in effect floor map elements. This enabled a rich dialogue and the leaders noticed that they could share their embodied or intuitive knowing as well as their more rational analytic knowledge. This gave rise to a rich dialogue and towards the end the leaders were invited to find the right strategic scenario that they felt could be implemented in the next four years.

For our purposes we also used a variation of the blockers and issues. We achieved this by having an initial ‘right place’ from each of the respective leaders. We then asked the most senior leaders for their ideas and feelings. We created space for dialogue and this helped identify the blockers and issues from the other leaders. Once we had identified these and the senior leaders made a commitment to resolve these problems going forward, we then did a second clustering asking the same question: What is the right strategic scenario for the next four years? Helping these senior leaders to experience the shifts that occurred for them and sharing these authentically with their co-leaders was an energising meeting. The feedback was that the quality of conversations was more open, authentic and less political when compared with more traditional meetings sat around a large table having a ‘debate’. (Please have a look at the blog on strategic dialogue). 

What is the theory that shapes practice?

As a Business Psychologist I am coming from an applied psychological perspective. It seems to me that there are four main theories (and a range of secondary ones in terms of group processes). The ones that have shaped my practice would be:

  • Gestalt because we are inviting the individuals to see their respective parts from a much larger, expansive whole. This framing and orientation helps moving between the ‘whole system’ and the parts. It also helps the team to pay attention to any positive and negative feedback loops. This is a systemic approach that lands well in most organisations without the need for any translation or resistance.
  • Dialogue in that we are drawing on the work from Bill Isaacs that from differences in perspective and assumptions we can carefully create the conditions (or the right environment) to co-create and innovate. I love his reminder that a dialogue is “a conversation with a centre and not sides” and I have discovered that mapping from this approach enables dialogue. Individuals can walk around the whole map and see the parts and the whole from these many perspectives. It is fair to say that Sarah Rozenthuler is an expert in this field.
  • Role playing when we include the selected stakeholders I have been encouraged that all the teams have had members that we were very willing and able to represent a stakeholder. In fact, they often turned-up with their own short story of what part of the purpose map that they imagined or knew that the given stakeholder was interested in and why this was the case. Once that they had settled in on the map, there is most often a rich dialogue between the ‘stakeholder’ and the team that helped the whole team understanding with rich insights.
  • Team climate or what we called the right environment and in some other work areas they refer to as the ‘safe container’. We found the latter description did not land well and so we changed it. In effect we are talking about creating the conditions underpinning ‘psychological safety’. From this safety individuals and teams can explore their authentic points of view, differences and so forth.
  • Team dynamics and the Tavistock Institute would be my recommended guide. Please find more information here:

 Gratitude & Acknowledgements

I was trained and later supervised by Ed Rowland and Sarah Rozenthuler from The Whole Partnership. I am very grateful for their professionalism, care and encouragement that in many ways helping me to ‘find my own way’ in this excellent way of working- systemically.

You can find a range of training courses here:

Finally, please explore the other learning on the website. I would love for you to share how you have used any of the learning in your practice. Please post a comment as I’d love to hear from you.









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