The Power of the “Non-Purpose” in Strategy Sessions and Business Communication

With my forty-odd years of sitting in on business meetings, I have found one thing to be true: people like to talk. They like to share. And they have lots of ideas when you get them going.

Now this inherent capacity of human beings for expressing their thoughts can be viewed as a strength. But more often than not, in large groups and business meetings, excessive communication about irrelevant topics leads to miscommunication and general confusion.

Zohair Chentouf, R&D Manager at Dialexia Communications in Montreal, writes in an article entitled “Overcommunication, Hypocommunication, and Miscommunication:”

“The misusage of communication does not relate only to its quantity. Communication must convey the right content between the right communicators at the right time. Otherwise, it may turn into miscommunication.”

The solution to this inherent pothole in the conventional business meeting is what I call “Identifying the Non-Purpose(s) of your Project.”

Negative Planning Enhances Strategy Sessions and Business Communication

The Non-Purpose (or negative planning) frames what you will not talk about in your planning session. Be clear.

Non-Purpose statements can be:

  • To do “implementation work”
  • To rework the concept
  • To point fingers or lay blame on anyone
  • To get hung up in micro details
  • To tell war stories

By drawing the boundary lines of what will not be communicated during a planning session, you will find that a space is created. You’ve cleared a space for what deserves your attention: the issue at hand. Without clearing this necessary space, a planning session will often veer off the wrong path or go down a “bunny trail” – interesting conversation, but not relevant to the topic being addressed.

Let me give you two examples of how identifying your Non-Purpose can dramatically reduce clutter and relieve strain in your planning.

Example One:

This one is from an Institute attendee.

Ed Woolohan, now retired, worked with the Bureau of Prisons/National Institute of Corrections. They wanted to make their satellite broadcast training more interesting and interactive – less “talking head”, less like C-Span and more like MTV.

His Non-Purposes:

  1. To worry about money (because he knew the massive scope, reach and budget of his organization intimidated members of his project team).
  2. To get into production details (because he had two TV producers on the project team)

By not letting these two Non-Purposes get in the way, this project team developed ideas Ed said a typical project team never would have produced.

Example Two: Health Care and HIPAA

One year I worked with a health care organization. They agreed to make HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) a non-issue of the day. Was HIPAA important to them? Absolutely! Did they save time by not discussing this thorny and controversial topic? Absolutely! This simple decision changed the tone and direction of the meeting. Non-purpose sharpened their communications.

Variations on Negative Planning 

Now we can apply the principle of Non-Purpose to other aspects of business communication.

Rather than straining to figure out who your target audience is, find out who they are not. Our target audience is not college students. Our target audience is not stay-at-home mothers. Our target audience is not school-children.   It’s full-time working mothers of first graders.

There are countless variations on this basic principle of negative planning.

  1. Frame the discussion at your next strategy session in terms of what services or products you don’t intend to offer. By eliminating all those services that are extraneous, you will clarify the ones that are essential.
  2. Decide what features you will not offer. When Information Technology departments ask their clients what they want in IT services, they typically receive an overload of suggestions and requests. Clients will say they want every bell and whistle available. Instead have your clients tell you what they don’t need.
  3. State non-goals or non-objectives. Similar to stating a non-purpose, this negative approach can dramatically sharpen the underlying aim of a business meeting.
  4. Declare what actions should not be done. For instance, “don’t call before 9:00 am”. Negative directions are almost always easier to understand and remember than positive ones.

The negative is a powerful communication tool. Use it! In my years of leading over 500 Strategy Sessions, I have seen how identifying and addressing the negative serves to bring out the positive. Eliminate what is unnecessary by stating it in the beginning of your next business meeting. Declare your Non-Purpose to get clarity for action. It works.

4 Responses to The Power of the “Non-Purpose” in Strategy Sessions and Business Communication

  1. Nan Foltz January 14, 2015 at 3:05 pm #

    Hi Jerry,

    Thank you for the article on the non-purpose. I know it’s power. The back side slips in and you truly turn the group around by offering a chance to say “what is not included” in this conversation. There isn’t a more powerful strategy than offering a chance go see the whole conversation another way.

    It brings some really good sessions to mind.

    Thanks for the read….

    • Jerry McNellis January 19, 2015 at 12:15 pm #


      It’s amazing how the NON-PURPOSE becomes more important every year.

      I’ll always have fond memories of our teaching days together.


  2. Michael Volpe January 18, 2015 at 3:06 pm #

    Hi and Happy New Year to you and the family too!

    I have spoken to you before about my amazement at the power of the “non-purpose” in my planning work but it wasn’t until I read your blog that I realized why this felt so “novel” to me at first.

    As a psychologist and educator I have spent years attempting to get teachers and administrators to consider that when trying to change an undesired behavior in a student, they cannot just tell them what not to do, but must also tell them what would be the preferred behavior or response to a situation.

    This conversation generally expanded into consideration of not speaking in negative terms or phrasing in general with a student and particularly with those with disabilities.

    It apparently became such an internalized system for me that when given the “permission” to work in an arena where a negative framing of an issue was not only supported but encouraged, I was completely “tweaked”.

    All kidding aside, I just realized that while I understood the power and efficiency of the stating clearly what not to do, I have spent so many years expanding the conversation that I may have lost sight of its importance.

    Anyway, as always I can count on you to simply and clearly explain the components of the work and make it even more meaningful to my practices.

    Thanks friend. Take care.


  3. Jerry McNellis January 19, 2015 at 12:21 pm #


    Appreciate your insights.

    I look forward to working together to build The National Compression Planning Institute for Special Education Leaders.


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