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Purpose and 'onlyness': Q&A with Nilofer Merchant


Thinkers50 thinker and HRD Summit keynote speaker Nilofer Merchant discusses how organisations can help employees find their purpose

A term coined by you – 'onlyness' – describes what any one individual brings to a situation. It includes the skills, passions, and purpose of each person. How can this be brought to life by HR leaders?

One of the funny things that we do as people is we have our own passions in certain things that matter to us. Yet rarely do people ever ask us what that is. I remember a time I was working with Adobe at a pretty strategic level that had a $2 million budget. With this 'extra money' they had the opportunity to either spread that across the existing budget or do something new. They decided to allow anyone inside the entire company to submit ideas about what they would do with that $2 million.

They asked: what do you want done? What do you care about? Some people showed up with product ideas, some with marketing ideas. Another group said 'we want to improve the food in our cafeteria to improve the productivity of our people,' or 'we want to improve the health of our people,' and so on. They had literally hundreds of ideas. Self-organising teams had formed around ideas that people cared about.

I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be fascinating if we could work that way more. What if we could just ask people what things they care about, what they'd like to see done.

How can organisations help individuals and teams find their purpose?

It’s not about asking directly. No-one asks: 'what is your meaning? What is your purpose?' We might look a little like a deer in headlights because it’s not a simple thing to articulate. You should ask them: if you could solve any problem around here what would you solve? People have so many ideas about things that are broken and need fixing or could be done in a fresh way.

What can companies do to create a sense of purpose that is visible externally and attracts employees into the organisation?

Instead of saying 'I want my company to tell us what our values are,' I think when we live our values, it becomes evident. A company that believes in their people is vital. There is a company I know that encourages their people to go out and do things in the community. People would serve in homeless centres, and one woman sits with the mentally ill because they need someone to be around and help tend them. When people ask: 'why do you do it?' she says, 'well, I really care about this and my company’s given me time to be able to do this thing I care about.' At that moment, everyone knows the value of that company.

How do we step into a shared space to enable co-creation?

I think the greatest way is to create a shared objective. Most of us work in a place where ideas are owned by one part of the organisation and execution by another. We need to come together and say: 'we own this thing together, it’s not yours or mine to do one piece of it or not.' Work for a long time has been shaped by isolating what each person can do. But today when ideas come into the market you need to figure how to not separate people but to ask them to come together around bigger objectives and have them co-own that bigger objective together. So the shared space is: how do we co-own a problem as our own?

Nilofer Merchant is an author, speaker and thinker ranked by Thinkers50. She will deliver a keynote at the HRD Summit in February 2018