The Pyramid of Purpose

Communicating Your Organization's Strategy Concisely

The Pyramid of Purpose

© iStockphoto/geopaul

Effective strategic planning is essential to the success of any business. It's the process that senior executives use to think about how the business will win in the future; and without it, the organization is most-likely doomed to failure.

But however good your strategy is, it will fail if people don't understand it. They won't know where the organization is going, or how to help you get there. They'll probably get frustrated and confused; customers may feel dissatisfied; and other stakeholders may lose their faith in your organization's ability to deliver.

So your business needs both effective strategic planning and good communication of strategy. And just as a map is usually more effective than a list of directions, so a graphical description of your strategy can often communicate your strategy more effectively than a weighty document.

One popular technique for communicating strategy graphically is called "the Pyramid of Purpose". It is called this because it describes the elements of strategy graphically.

Understanding the Tool

There are many ways of describing strategy. One approach, which also illustrates the hierarchical structure well, thinks of business strategy as answering the following questions:

  1. Why are we doing what we are doing?
  2. What do we need to do to fulfill our intended purpose?
  3. How exactly are we going to do what needs to be done?
  4. Who (or what) is going to make sure it's done?

Answering these questions can help you articulate your strategy very comprehensively, covering the key ingredients that are generally needed in a strategic plan:

  • Question 1 – "why" – refers to your organization's values, mission, and vision.
  • Question 2 – "what" – covers objectives and goals.
  • Question 3 – "how" – refers the actions needed to realize these goals.
  • Question 4 – "who" – refers to the people, systems and tools which deliver these.

A hierarchy of questions emerges: In order to answer question 4, you need to answer question 3; to answer question 3, you need to answer question 2; and to answer question 2, you need to answer question 1.

The high level elements of organizational values, the mission and the vision (the "why"), flow through the business and permeate every aspect.

Likewise, the objectives and goals (the "what") flow down to determine the actions and approaches that are necessary (the "how").

And these planning elements all need certain resources (people, systems and so on), to get them done (the "who").

This can be represented in a pyramid like the one in figure 1:

Pyramid of Purpose Diagram

Using the Tool: Building Your Pyramid Of Purpose

The starting point for your Pyramid of Purpose is to explain the "why", which will draw on values, mission statement and vision statement for the organization.

The way you do this depends on your audience: What exactly do you need to communicate and who to? And so you must explain each element of your strategy in a way that suits that audience and the messages you wish to convey.

If the purpose is to communicate strategy to customers and stakeholders of your organization (an external audience), a good place to start your pyramid is with a vision statement. For an internal audience, the "why" level might focus on the mission statement, or indeed include both vision and mission statements in your pyramid. Our article on Vision and Mission Statements   explains the distinction between the two, and will also help you create a vision or mission statement for the "why" level of your Pyramid of Purpose.

Once you have described the "why", the next steps of building your pyramid must define the "what", then the "how" and finally the "who". And you need to do this in a way that clearly explains your strategy to your specific audience.


An entrepreneur must explain the strategic plan of his fledgling business to potential investors. He uses a Pyramid of Purpose to communicate the key points of his strategic plan:

Why: Vision / Mission

To delight and enthrall parents and children alike with beautiful, collectable, wooden toys and games, and in so doing, become the nation's leading retailer of high quality, wooden toys and games.

What: Objectives

Prove the concept by launching a pilot store and reaching profitability within 18 months.

How: Actions

  • Identify the pilot store location
  • Source good quality wooden toys and games
  • Design attractive store front and merchandising approach
  • ...

Who: People

  • Responsible for location selection.
  • Responsible for supplier identification and product sourcing.
  • Responsible for selecting store designers and shop fitters.
  • ...
Pyramid of Purpose Example

Key Points

The Pyramid of Purpose is a graphical depiction of an organization's strategic plan. By putting the various elements of a good strategic plan into a pyramid form, it is easy to see the "big picture" and relationships between different elements of the plan in a form that is easy to understand: The purpose shown at the apex cascades from one level of strategy to the next.

There are no hard and fast rules for building a Pyramid of Purpose: Use it to convey your plan in the way your intended audience is most likely to understand.

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Comments (9)
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi monulie,
    I just heard back from the editorial team and it appears my assumption that the Pyramid of Purpose evolved from a variety of sources is correct. There is no "one" originator. The tool is very effective and helps put those four key elements of strategy into one framework for further analysis. I hope you find good uses for it. Come back here and let us know what you find if you do indeed do more research on your own.

  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi monulie,
    I'm not sure who developed the tool originally. Essentially it's a graphical description of basic strategic planning and represented within a pyramid. I've asked our editorial team if they know where or when the idea originated, however I think it probably evolved quite organically as people started thinking about the key strategic questions, Why, What, How and Who. When I get an answer back from editorial I will post it here.

    What about this tool resonated with you? We have many great tools on strategy and strategic planning that you will also find valuable. Here is a quick link to those sections of our toolkit:

  • monulie wrote Over a month ago
    Could someone please let me know who developed the Pyramid of Purpose tool, I would like to do some more reading on this in greater depth?
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi elainey,
    That's a great suggestion. I've passed your idea onto the editorial team for review. We appreciate feedback like this so please don't hesitate to let us know where you spot improvement potential.

  • elainey wrote Over a month ago
    This is a very clear model - needs links to how you do each level to be even more useful
  • bigk wrote Over a month ago

    Doing some reading again... but just thought I would add, I like the concept in this direct approach.. but (?)

    Can the people be moved to a higher priority?

    As a base yes this seems good, as the foundation, the people.
    When (or if) the people are important in delivering the goals should they not be moved to a higher significance.
    In my model if I remodelled this I would like them above the base.
    Is this; why, what, who, how, there is an increased level of responsibility and accountabliity, or am I pushing too hard?

    (I will also ask myself)

  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    I like the simplified version of your Pyramid of Purpose - the model I'm used to is much more involved in terms of levels - using just the four elements (why, what, how, and who) creates a really clear graphical depiction of strategic direction and planning.

    Thanks for another great tool.

  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    I like your thinking, Max!
    We often find new purposes for strategy tools, here at Mind Tools. thanks for suggesting this one.
    The pyramid of purpose is great for showing the big picture, whatever level of objectives and goals you are thinking about.
    Thanks again Max
  • MaxZero wrote Over a month ago
    I think this has much wider application than just company strategy - it's a useful way of giving the big picture to teams at all levels.

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