The Mission Statement Is Dead! Long Live the Mission Narrative!

The idea for this piece was rattling around in the back of my brain when I came across an interesting blog post on the Association for Talent Development’s site: “Why I Hate Mission Statements—But Love Missions.” The writer, Brad Federman, lays out many legitimate complaints about typical declarations: They have been wordsmithed into frothy blather, are too long to be remembered, and have little use beyond adorning the lobby wall. But Federman also argues, correctly, that a compelling mission has the power to shape a workplace and inform strategic and operational decisions. So what accounts for the disconnect? More importantly, how can it be bridged?

The primary fault lies not in the “mission” but in the “statement.” A statement is a one-time aspirational exercise, which is usually crafted by an elite group of marketers or executives for customers or clients. Everyone involved feels good about the honeyed prose. And there are, of course, good mission statements. The best are crisp and straightforward—more Hemingway than Faulkner. I like Patagonia’s: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire, and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Too often, however, the statement becomes an end in itself, disconnected from job descriptions, leadership competencies, operational policies, and the other activities that comprise the day-to-day reality of the organization. Making that connection takes work and commitment. And that’s where mission narratives come in.

The narrative is a bottom-up method for ratifying the relevance and strength of the company’s purpose while also unearthing examples, hidden best practices, and unacknowledged obstacles to success. In a healthy culture, names can be attached to the narrative because telling truth to power is not a career-ending move. In companies that are more toxic, they can be written anonymously. People who are intimidated by writing can invest in some voice recognition software that allows them to capture the narrative orally.

The mission narrative should be short and explicit—the story of how a company’s mission is actually achieved. The quality of the writing is secondary, even tertiary, to spirit and specificity. It can be half a page, a page, or even two pages. It can be written by the people who actually do the work, and it can take one of many forms, depending on who’s writing it. Here are some examples of what a team leader might write:

  • To realize our mission, I do A, B, and C as a retail team leader to build a group that delivers X, Y, and Z. An example of where we performed at our peak in the past six months is… and an example of where we fell short is… I was most proud of my team when we…
  • The criteria I use for hiring are 1, 2, and 3. The formal and informal methods that I use for development are 4, 5, and 6.
  • The policies, procedures, and tools that help me most are… and here’s why. Here are those that get most in the way… and here’s why. The changes I would make tomorrow if I could are… and here’s why.
  • Here’s what I have done over the past six months to make our store and its people embody the mission of this organization…
  • If I were to hire my replacement, I would look for these qualities and/or experiences that are not in the current job description… Here’s why they would be important for his or her success…

A product manager might write about how the company’s mission informs the way suppliers are chosen or components approved for inclusion in a product. A designer or architect could write about how materials are specified. The list goes on.

Emphasizing examples, evidence, and underlying reasoning (“Here’s why…”) bring genuine experiences to light. Storytelling—the oldest, most enduring, and one of the most powerful forms of human communication—helps individuals from the shop floor to the boardroom distill concrete meaning and expression of the company’s overarching focus. Meaning drives engagement and motivation. Meaning cannot be crafted from afar; each person must find it and feel it themselves. The narrative exercise provides a channel for that exploration.

Be careful, however, not to turn the narrative into a corporate history. This is not about memorializing the distant past but rather an opportunity to chronicle the present and co-create the future. The narratives should be part of an ongoing, open-ended dialog through which members of the enterprise learn more about themselves and the work they do while also sharing to create community.

As a collective body of knowledge, the mission narratives can inform everything from organizational structure, to reward-and-recognition programs or basic policies. The exercise can embed purpose, values, and performance measures deep into an organization (and reveal where improvements must be made). Alignment up and down within organizational units and across organizational boundaries improves when people clearly articulate why they are doing what they are doing. Interdependencies are revealed. Resilience is enhanced.

Are there companies that do this well? John Hagel has cited Nike and Appleas examples of corporate narratives that hit the mark, with their “Just do it” and “Think different” messages, respectively. These slogans are not merely catchy mission statements meant to be used as marketing tools, but they begin narratives that encapsulate a larger story at the institutional level. I’m advocating something even more holistic and expansive in its creation and iteration. Like Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, who wrote about how to create the best workplace on Earth but who could find no company that followed all of the principles, I am still searching for the organization that takes full advantage of the power of mission narratives. If you know of one or are part of an organization that would like to try, please get in touch. In a future post, I’ll share some of the best.

Originally published at strategy + business


Target Employee’s Amazing Black Friday Pep Talk

Shift meetings are supposed to be fun and motivating.  But most are boring.  These meetings are a great opportunity to get feedback from your employees.  But most are one way communication tools.  Most importantly, these meetings should have a call to action.  Yet most fall flat.

The shift meeting below does not fall flat.  This manager understands what a shift meeting can do.  Enjoy.  It is one of the best!

It starts with this…”People of Target, brothers, sisters, hear me now,” he said. “They’re standing out there. Any moment now, those doors will be breached. Whatever comes through those gates, you will stand your ground with a smile on your face.” And it only gets better!

Engagement as Culture—or Bust!

United States spends more than $720 million annually on improving employee engagement, according 2012 research from industry analysts Bersin & Associates. The Center for Creative Leadership, PerformancePoint, Kenexa, and Gallop also track engagement figures. Some of the recent stats include:

  • a majority of employees (58 to 90 percent) do not trust management
  • only 14 to 58 percent of employees believe that management is ethical and honest
  • only 15 to 30 percent of employees are actually engaged.

Think about it: If we spend more than $720 million each year, why is engagement so low?

To read the full article go to:

Why your employee engagement efforts don’t work

Bersin & Associates noted in 2012 that in the United States alone, we spend more than $720 million annually on improving employee engagement. According to sources such as the Center for Creative Leadership, PerformancePoint, Kenexa, and Gallup, between 58% and 90% of employees do not trust management, between 14% and 58% believe that management is ethical and honest, and between 15% and 30% are actually engaged. Think about it! If we spend more than $720 million a year, why are we getting
those results?

It doesn’t end with the survey We know engagement efforts work at times. Study after study demonstrates that engagement improves productivity, reduces absenteeism, improves customer satisfaction, allows organizations to be more innovative, creates a safer work environment, and improves retention. So why is it that only 16% of companies that use engagement surveys see positive results? Why is it that only 65% of employees feel they are thriving at work? There are several reasons that is happening:

(1) Leadership doesn’t recognize it as a significant problem. I realize it’s taboo to say that. However, if we were looking at a capital expenditure, such as machinery that was functioning at the levels we just described, leadership would do something and be committed to real results.

(2) People see engagement efforts as simply administering a survey. Surveys don’t solve problems; they give you information. Surveys are a view of the past, much like looking in the rear-view mirror of your car. They tell you very little about where you are going, but a great deal about where you have been. Surveys aren’t bad; however, many organizations misuse them, and they end up not serving any purpose or sometimes hurting the company.

(3) We use survey results to fix symptoms and create action plans. Action planning lasts for two to three months, and then most managers go back to “business as usual.” There are no long-term substantial changes in the organization. Even when the survey concludes that there are issues with work relationships or lack of training and development, organizations respond to what they see in the data, which typically has to do with an item or a question in the survey. The problem is that the results tell you what to focus on but usually don’t tell you why it’s an issue. It’s impossible to address the issue unless you find out why it became a problem. To determine the cause, you have
to dig, and that’s uncomfortable and challenging.

(4) We spend most of our money measuring, not changing. If we are going to change, we need to look across the organization at the cultural attributes that cause us to struggle with achieving engagement. Send the right message Culture is in the stories people tell, the symbols people hold up or see, and the rituals we follow in our organizations. For instance, some organizations assign parking places based on seniority or level in the
company. That describes a culture in which certain people are valued more than others and employees’ value isn’t built on their productivity or work product but on their status. There are organizations with beautiful, well-tended corporate headquarters, yet their manufacturing plants or retail branches need significant repairs or contain broken equipment that hinders employees’ performance. That sends a message that corporate is more valued than the people in the field doing the work.

What are the messages you’re sending your people through your culture?

Originally published in Words on Wise

More about the Author

Top 5 Employee Deal-Breakers

What frustrates employees?  what makes them want to look for a new job?  According to HR Manager, Sept 2014 these are the Top 5:

  1. Not feeling trusted and empowered by their boss.
  2. Being expected to work or answer e-mail during a sick day, during vacation or after work.
  3. A boss who shifts the blame to employees when things go awry.
  4. Lack of flexibility for family responsibilities.
  5. Not getting along with co-workers.

Do you agree?  What would you add to the list?

The Inclusion Challenge – Question of the day

The workplace is more diverse now then ever before. How has the diversity helped your organization? And what are your biggest inclusion challenges?

Invention Factories and Open Learning

Thomas Edison is often referred to as the father of invention. But in my view, Edison was the first — and possibly finest — CLO.

Consider the learning environment he built during his most prolific period — between 1876 and 1882 — when he housed a team of two dozen in Menlo Park, N.J. During those six years, more than 400 patents were filed, creating products that shaped the 20th century: the phonograph, the carbon telephone transmitter, stations that could generate and transmit electricity, and the incandescent light bulb.

Edison understood that employees are only partly driven by remuneration — his young team members each earned less than a teacher’s salary. But he achieved engagement by creating an open, empowering and collaborative learning environment. One employee, Francis Upton, wrote to his father shortly after arriving at Menlo Park, “The strangest thing to me is that the $12 I get each Saturday for my labor does not seem like work, but like study, and I enjoy it.”
I highlight Edison’s invention factory because innovative learning environments didn’t just appear overnight in Silicon Valley startups. His vision and imagination inspired many of the leading creative workplaces of the past 50 years.

Edison put in place key structural and cultural building blocks that still inspire imitation. First, he believed in a silo-free machine shop culture where peer learning across disciplines prevailed.

Spencer Silver, one of 3M’s senior scientists and a co-inventor of the Post-It note, said in “A Century of Innovation: The 3M Story,” “Thomas Edison believed that a small group of people with varied backgrounds could be the most inventive. That’s what I found when I joined (3M’s) Central Research. I could talk to an analytical chemist, a physicist, people working in biology and organic chemistry — people in all the sciences. They were all within 50 yards.”

Second, innovative learning environments are inherently democratic. Look at photographs taken inside the machine shop at Menlo Park; it’s impossible to tell which one is Edison. He knew that good ideas could come from anywhere and that creativity hates hierarchy.

Third, Edison’s learning environment was highly social. When he set up the organ for communal singing, or provided beer and food for all-night invention sessions, it wasn’t very different than the free massages and food available at Google Inc. It probably provided the inspiration for Mark Zuckerberg’s pizza-fueled all-night “hackathons” at Facebook Inc. Not only social, Menlo Park was open: Visitors were allowed easy access to the shops, whether they were young boys looking for inspiration or rival inventors looking for ideas.

I call these kinds of innovative environments learning commons, but sadly, many formal learning contexts still operate as closed learning enclosures. One of the driving themes of my book “OPEN” is the process of “disintermediation”: removing the intermediaries in how we conduct all transactions, including learning.
This is the CLO’s dilemma. Outside the workplace, we all learn informally and socially. In learning theory terms, we’re moving from pedagogy — tutor-led; through andragogy — self-directed; to heutagogy — self-determined. In the future, we can expect to be more in control of our learning in the workplace.

So, how does today’s CLO build an innovative, user-driven learning commons? In interviews with CLOs, there was a palpable sense of frustration that their desire to encourage open, collaborative learning cultures was often undermined by corporate incentives that encourage individualism and short-term metrics.
“What gets badged as ‘organizational learning’ is really just the mass training of individuals,” said Matt Moore, knowledge manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Sydney. “Corporations have to balance three levels of learning: the individual, the group and the corporate … it’s usually the group that gets neglected.”

Then, consider the importance of engagement. According to Gallup, the damage to productivity from disengaged employees is $300 billion per year in the U.S. alone. Perhaps our leaders need to be reminded the key to real employee engagement doesn’t lie in incentive programs, but in ensuring that labor feels less like work and more like learning.

Originally published in CLO