How to craft a one-sentence description of your organization's purpose

Your organization's purpose drives it. But can people explain what you do and why you do it in a single sentence?
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a big flag flying in a sea of other flags, teamwork

I began my career in the automotive industry, training dealership retail salespeople. Before each of my seminars, I would ask each vehicle salesperson, one-on-one, what they thought their job was (that is, the specific tasks it involved) and what they considered a "successful day". I then asked the sales manager (the salespeople's direct boss), one-on-one, the same questions. If I didn't hear similar answers from those two parties, I knew the manager and the sales staff didn't share a common vision of success—and that there would be nothing but confusion about how to evaluate a salesperson's purpose. I left that job (and industry) in 2001 and entered the construction cutting tool industry, but I continued pressing people to articulate a focused purpose. "Why," I asked them, "should the company exist?"

Eventually, I started studying how a company can focus its purpose, and one book was very helpful in that work: The Inside Advantage, by Robert H. Bloom. I applied Bloom's suggestions in my new company and later created a presentation on the subject of defining a core purpose. I've uploaded many presentations, and for years that presentation has consistently been the most-viewed presentation I've ever shared.

Because purpose plays such an important role in open organizations, I want to share what I've learned about how organizations can clarify a purpose, who they serve, how they serve their core customer and what they celebrate externally.

Say it in four sentences

Bloom's most significant point is that you must be able to state your organization's purpose in short sentences. A short sentence will simplify complexity and make vagueness turn crystal clear. Bloom looks at a collection of four targeted sentences he calls "the growth discover process," which he says produces the necessary clarity.

  • A "who" sentence is about the core customer that most likely will buy your product or service in the quantity required for optimal profit (not a statistic or demographic category, but an imagined person with a personality you can get to know personally).
  • A "what" sentence is about the uncommon offering that your business has and leverages (your special benefit to the customer you identified in the previous sentence).
  • A "how" sentence is about the persuasive strategy and actions you employ to convince your core customer (from the first sentence) to believe in your uncommon offering (from the second sentence) versus all competitive offerings (the interaction customers experience with you that differentiates you from all others that is difficult to copy).
  • An "own it" sentence, as the author calls it, is about a series of imaginative acts and impressions that celebrate your uncommon offering and make it well known to your core customer (your way of showing what you mean to that customer).

Community is one of five key principles that are fundamental to open organizations. A community must have a highly valued, shared, and clearly stated purpose. Ask yourself:

  • What is that single, most-praised purpose?
  • Who does that purpose serve?
  • How does it serve them differently or better than what is available right now?
  • How does your community celebrate that purpose so others can see it?

Can your organization answer these questions with one-sentence responses? If not, you'll have some work to do.

Here's how you can get started.

1. Who do you serve?

Start by getting key members of your open organization together and asking them to close their eyes and imagine the ideal person they serve:

  • If your open organization's customer was one person, what would he look like?
  • What would he worry about?
  • What would he be most interested in?
  • What would his preferences be?
  • What would his prejudices, habits, goals or desires be?

Then define who the organization serves in one sentence. Bloom describes how to make a "who" sentence in great detail:

  1. Gather all the key people in your open organization (people that have the most experience in working with their current customers) in a room.
  2. Ask them to individually write down all their current customers (as many as possible).
  3. Ask why these customers do business with them.
  4. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine their ideal customer.
  5. Imagine a single image of a person that embodies that customer (in the case of a company).
  6. From each participant, get one ideal, imagined customer and make a list of them on one flip chart page.
  7. Looking at the flip chart list, have the group decide who are the top three to five ideal models.
  8. Ask each member of the group to individually make a sentence (less than 15 words long) that describe what these ideal customers all have in common.
  9. Put all the sentences on the flip chart and ask everyone what is similar with all the sentences. Ask: Are there key concerns of all of them? What do they all want from us?
  10. After discussing all the sentences, create a single sentence that everyone agrees represents the most accurate ideal customer image, then give that ideal character a descriptive name.

Conducting this exercise with employees at my company resulted in the following "who" statement:

"An active cutting tool accessory national distributor that desires supplier quick response and close communication."

We all agreed to call this imagined customer "distributor Bob" and created an illustration of him.

You can apply this same process to the other questions. Let's continue.

2. What do you offer?

Next, have key members of your open organization discuss what their ideal customer likes about working with the organization. Ask them to create a simple, focused image of what the customer values most. If a company deeply evaluates itself, it will find hidden strengths—what Bloom calls an "inside advantage"—on which it capitalizes. For example, the organization's strength might be that it's "more transparent," "more inclusive," or "better able to adapt to different needs." Maybe it's something more like "collaborating well with customers."

Then, in one sentence, define "what" you offer that other organizations don't. What is your broad, positive experience and the value you provide that customers appreciate most? This goes further than just a product or service. For example, when I was a commercial vehicle sales trainer, I'd explain that "we are not in the truck selling business (the transaction item) but the transportation efficiency business." That is what the customers needed.

So what differentiates you from others?

  1. Begin with your sentence describing your ideal imaged customer and that person's problems, concerns, situation, needs, and desires.
  2. Now ask: What do you offer that this customer most desires and values? What can you offer that no one else can?
  3. If your group of participants in this exercise is larger than 12 people, separate them into smaller groups.
  4. First individually, and then together, have them decide what their ideal customer wants from the organization.
  5. Once they've formulated the customer's overall wants, learn the primary things they believe this customer wants from you. Ask the groups to compose a sentence from them (again, no longer than 15 words!).
  6. Convene all the groups and compare the sentences.
  7. Look for similarities and write a combined sentence describing what is most valued.
  8. Confirm that all agree the sentence expresses the organization's greatest offering.

At my cutting tool supply company, we composed the following "what" statement:

"We strengthen our distributors in supplying quality tools at the right time to their customers."

3. How do you promote it?

Next, have the group discuss how they convince their ideal, imagined customer of their special offering. This is how you move away from just being a commodity and toward offering something special. How do you convince someone that what you do is special?

This is the action you typically take to connect "what" to "who." It is the action that makes your organization special in their hearts. With this in mind, discuss what your ideal customer hears, sees, senses, receives, and experiences from you. Then discuss and agree on "how" they are convinced that your company's offering is special to them. Follow these steps:

  1. Begin with your statements describing who your ideal customer is and what that customer wants. Consider, too, what you offer that this customer greatly values.
  2. Now, discuss how you explain that offering to that customer.
  3. Again, if you have a group of over 12 people, separate them into smaller groups.
  4. Discuss the question: How do you let your ideal customer know what you offer is rare?
  5. Once you learn what you typically do to promote your offering, create a sentence of no more than 15 words that describes specifically what those actions are.
  6. Bring all groups together and compare the sentences they've each produced.
  7. Look for similarities and make a combined sentence of the different ways you create value for the customer. Which one is the most powerful?
  8. Come to an agreement about the best action sentence.

Returning to my own example, my company's "how" statement read:

"We regularly present to distributors order status reports and give sales training that others can't."

4. Own it

Finally, your open organization will need to sharpen its "external impression," or the impression that your imagined ideal customer has of your organization. This involves putting yourself in your imagined customer's shoes (think about all the companies in your life about which you have an impression, then imagine how your customers are thinking about your organization in a similar way).

Consider shaping that external impression instead of just letting your imagined, core customer dream it up. Put those impressions into one sentence.

For Bloom, "Own it!" is a strategy for making your organization known for being one-of-a-kind to your ideal, imagined customer. Create (and amplify) a specific organizational image that you'd like people to have when they think about you.

Discuss how you celebrate your organization's specialty in a way that your ideal customer will notice. To do this:

  1. Begin with your sentences describing your ideal customer, that customer's desires, and how you separate yourself from others.
  2. Now, discuss how to create a focused image of the organization through celebrations.
  3. Ask your group (or groups) to discuss ways to celebrate what you offer your ideal customer.
  4. Once you've brainstormed a list of celebrations that bring out what you do for your ideal customer, make a sentence (once again, in no more than 15 words!) that describes those activities.
  5. Bring all groups together and compare their sentences.
  6. Look for similarities and make a combined sentence of what celebration actions are best.
  7. Last, reach agreement on which are best.

This one can be trickier, so let me list additional steps for articulating it. Consider everything you show, do and say to your core customer. What imaginative acts over time can promote that offering?

  • Through activities and events, make what you do special and well known to your core customer. Don't waste resources trying to become well known to everyone.
  • Create truly unique and imaginative acts that present your uncommon offering to your ideal customer.
  • Next, every time you encounter that customer (a "touch point"), make sure you use the opportunity to present your uncommon offering in some way.
  • Create small, low-cost, imaginative acts that reinforce your uncommon offering. Execute them frequently and consistently.
  • Invent a few high-profile, "explosive" promotions. Do this no more than four times per year. They should be within your budget and administrative ability.

My company's final "own it!" sentence read:

"We highlight our distributor support on all documents and visits, along with yearly brainstorming parties."

By making (1) a sentence describing your ideal, imagined customer, (2) a sentence about what he most values about you, (3) a sentence about how you convince him you are special, and (4) a sentence describing how you're celebrating what you offer, you will create a focused, efficient, and productive open organization.

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Ron McFarland has been working in Japan for over 40 years, and he's spent more than 30 of them in international sales, sales management training, and expanding sales worldwide. He's worked in or been to more than 80 countries.


Thanks Ron. It seems that by going through this exercise as a team, you're addressing that problem of "common vision of success" that you introduced at the start of the article because doing this exercise _brings_ everyone to the same page. It's also worth noting that this is #teambuilding - take your team and peers out to lunch and share what you did with your peers for some extra #inclusivity and #transparency.

Michael, Yes, by getting people together to discuss company focus could be considered a teambuilding exercise which could be a benefit on its own. On top of that, the members will buy into the process, namely more team interaction instead of just waiting for the boss to tell them what to do.

In reply to by Michael Doyle

After writing this article, I learned of a better method for generating the best ideas from a group of people addressing an issue.
Let me explain. I just completed reading the book INFLUENCIAL MIND, by Tali Sharot. She is a neuroscientist. From her research she learned our minds are always being influenced by our surroundings. Think of the terms “influenced”, “impacted”, “biased” and “corrupted”. As you can see, those words go from good to bad. Whether you agree with someone or not, whenever someone says something to you, you will be affected one way or another. It will change (in your mind) what you think about and what you recall at any given time.
Therefore, in her book, for group decisions, she might recommend that each member write three proposals before having any group discussion on a topic. Let’s take the “WHO” sentence proposal, as an example. Here are some suggested revised steps:
1. Select key Open Organization people who are most experienced in working with current customers.
2. Without them talking to anyone or each other, ask them to list all their customers and then close their eyes and imagine their ideal customer.
3. They should consider why this customer does business with them.
4. It must be a single image of a person.
5. Then, ask them to write a 15-word sentence on a piece of paper describing characteristics of their ideal customer and what that customer desires from us.
6. Next, ask them to put the piece of paper with the sentence on it in an envelope and close it (or put it in a separate file in your computer).
7. After a certain period of time (a night to “sleep on it” or a couple weeks, depending at time constraints), have them make another sentence of the ideal customer without opening the envelope of the first sentence. The reason for this is that what happens to the person between the first writing and the second will affect his recall and possibly new and better ideas will come out in the second writing.
8. Finally, after writing the second sentence, the person opens the envelope and compares the first sentence with the second sentence. He then tries to combine the two sentences for a third, revised sentence. That revised sentence will probably be more accurate for that person.
9. After all the key Open Organization people have their revised sentences, have the first meeting to discuss and compare all their sentences.
10. Ask them first to submit their third sentences when they walk in the door to the group leader who will make a list of them on a flip chart for discussion purposes. The reason for this is that there should be no editing of that sentence. Those sentences should be the starting point.
11. Without being judged, each person should read and explain his/her 15-word sentence on “WHO” their ideal customer is.
12. After all sentences have been presented, then the suggestions given in Bloom’s book can begin. Simply, all the members should discuss and agree on the ideal, combined 15-word sentence.

According to Tali Sharot, if the members walk into the room without any pre-written sentence, the person that presents first will influence all the members, and the decision-making process could be biased. She calls it “group think” which may be based on poor data from a very outspoken person.

Just giving this ability to recall some thought, consider different environments that influence recall. It could be alone right now thinking of the issue. It could be thinking about it several weeks from now. It could be thinking about it within a group of say 3-5 people. It could be thinking about it in a group of 10 people or more. All these situations will influence recall. To make things worse, depending on the relationship with the members of the group, some recalled thoughts could be ignored and never presented.
This method could be applied to all four sentences, and should create better results. On top of that, this method could be successfully applied in a wide range of bottom-up Open Organization decision-making activities, issues or concerns.

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