Organization and Management

The Hierarchy of Intention

22 Aug 2021  

I’ve been working with a client on the issue of increasing engagement and motivation among knowledge workers. In so doing, I’ve been reconsidering intention — what motivates us, as individuals, to do things — and how does that translate to how we behave in groups and organizations?

The masons and the cathedral

I love the parable of the masons in medieval England. A traveler comes upon four working men, each toiling at what appear to be an identical task. The traveler in turn asks each of the workmen what he is doing. “Laying stones,” replies the first. “Making a sturdy wall,” is the second’s response. “Building a beautiful cathedral,” answers the third. And the fourth replies, ”Creating a space in which a community of belief will flourish.”

In a literal sense, each is doing exactly the same work as the others. And each of their varying descriptions is accurate and true. But the way in which each perceives the work — and consequently frames the answer — is quite different. The first speaks of his Task; the second, of his Project; the third, of his Mission; the fourth, of his Purpose.

The hierarchy of intention

To me, this suggests a hierarchy of intention, ascending from the literal Task level toward the transcendent Purpose level. We could even describe four levels of intention, as shown in this table:

4 PURPOSE Community Community
3 MISSION Cathedral Network
2 PROJECT Wall Website
1 TASK Bricks HTML

Levels 1 and 2 are more tactical in nature; Levels 3 and 4 are more strategic.

Why does this matter?

Students of human behavior within organizational settings (for example, Aaron Hurst in The Purpose Economy) have found that job performance and satisfaction vary directly with one’s primary placement of that job on this hierarchy of intention. Those that perform best understand best the greater purpose of their work — and how their own day-to-day tasks fit within the larger social ecosystem.

Ironically, this expanded “outward awareness” also tends to shift their primary motivation inwards. Rather than being driven primarily by external factors like reward and recognition, they become more inner-directed. This effect scales up to the enterprise level as well. Leaders must articulate all four levels of intention for their employees, as well as for other organizational stakeholders. But their primary emphasis should remain on Purpose, since that enables, and even drives, the other three levels.

A “knowledge” example

How might this PMPT hierarchy of intention apply to knowledge work? Can it meaningfully describe a day in the life of a knowledge professional — me, for example?

What am I doing today? At Level 1 (Task), I’m making HTML edits. At Level 2 (Project), I’m enhancing a website I run of behalf of my Yale College classmates. At Level 3 (Mission), I serve as the developer-manager of a private electronic network for alumni-relevant announcements and notices. At Level 4 (Purpose), I am enabling and fostering a community of peers.

Purpose sells, too

I’m aware that I’m operating all all four levels.  But it’s Purpose that keeps me motivated — even when the tasks are mundane or repetitive (which, invariably, they sometimes are).

Others respond to Purpose, too. I recently lobbied the sponsors of our site/community for a budget to execute a site upgrade, assisted by a professional developer. My appeal was directly to Purpose — how each aspect of this initiative would serve the overall goals and mission of the client entity. My pitch worked, buy-in to the process was immediate, and a highly successful project resulted.  It clearly has the potential to become the community we had envisioned.

I recommend an appeal to Purpose as a powerful, and not-so-hidden, persuader in just about any situation.

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