Steve knew the project wasn’t working. Energy was waning; the milestones were falling further behind and the weekly meetings were stale, a rinse and repeat of the previous week.

In terms of priorities, this project wasn’t urgent. The deliverables would be helpful, but there was no burning platform, no big wins, no attention-grabbing failures. Steve knew he should probably reframe or even scrap it.

But every time he thought about it, his mind would go to the conversations he’d need to have. How would he explain making a change? Who would he need to talk to? It was a benign boring mess.

And therein lies the problem. With no guiding purpose, and without clear criteria for what good looks like, it’s easier to kick the can down the road. We see this problem all the time. It’s why:

  • Companies juggle too many projects without prioritizing them (and letting some go).
  • Leadership teams allow bad behavior to continue without calling it out.

Sunk costs are part of the problem. Most of us are reluctant to acknowledge failure. When you make a decision to stop or pivot, your losses — be they of time and/or resources — come into sharp focus. Avoiding the decision enables you to live in the fantasy world where things get better.

Another challenge is disruption. Decisions, even good ones, create extra work. And let’s be honest, decisions often require uncomfortable conversations. Firing someone or eliminating pet projects generates reactions most leaders prefer to avoid.

Overcoming the stagnating pull of sunk costs and discomfort of disruption requires more than just commitment to being decisive. This is where clarity of purpose can help. An organization that understands the long-term impact it is trying to have on its customers (and the world) has less tolerance for projects and people who are misaligned. Purpose provides a lens on decision-making that keeps you from prolonging problems in two key areas:

• A clear purpose enables leaders to decide what matters and what doesn’t.

• Purpose enables clear behavioral expectations

Next time you find yourself inside a messy conundrum, ask: What’s our purpose? Is this project or person helping us achieve it? Or are they hurting our progress?

Clarity of purpose doesn’t necessarily make your decisions easier, but it does make them more obvious. The faster you make the decision, the faster you can move in the direction of your goals.

Lisa McLeod is an author and business consultant.

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