Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Dangerous Paradox of the Muddled Mission

Rubik's Cube via Wikimedia

What is it that you do, exactly? What's your mission, priority, reason for being?
  • "World-class goods and services."
  • "To become the premier provider of ___."
  • "We are #1, of course."
Who do you serve? Oh, "we give them what they want," you say:
  • "It's all about customer service for us." 
  • "To provide customer-focused goods and services." 
  • "Serving the customer in all that we do."
World-class, premier, second-to-none, throw it in the vision or the mission or the values and make up the mythical customer. At the end of the day there is only one question, and its corollary:

Who cares? And why does it matter to them enough to pay for it?

You need answers to the following:

  • Who, in a very specific way, cares about the work you are doing enough to fund it? Why?
  • If there are different audiences, which one contributes the most money or the most influence over that money?
  • If the audiences' interests compete with one another, how can you reconcile them?

So although all of the following are nice-to-haves, they are always only an indicator rather than a metric of success. I am always surprised when organizations tout "accomplishments" like:

  • Number of New Initiatives: This is mystifying...what happened to the old initiatives and what did the customers do with them? And even more frighteningly why would we tout the amount of money spent on these unless this was tied to a result?
  • Engagement measures: It's another one of those buzzwords...if I click on an online news item to read about the healing properties of spinach for 10 seconds, so what?
  • Operational measures: If you've been doing the wrong thing inefficiently for many years, you will probably get more efficient over time. Why ought there be kudos for that?
If you are running an organization, your #1 task is to find out the top 5-10 groups of people who care about the work that you do, find out why, and then serve them. 

Of course, this task is not as simple as it sounds because human beings tend not to agree on things, especially when they are situated in a large and complex organization with many different stakeholders. Who likely have a financial interest in things. 

These people will most likely vehemently clash over the mission, the strategy, the relative importance of the stakeholders, the way the organization is set up, the way forward, and on and on. And that disagreement will grow in volume the more engaged they are and become.

Consider the dangerous paradox of the muddled mission:
  • The higher the quantity and diversity of your stakeholders, the more muddled your mission is likely to become as their interests diverge.
  • The more muddled the mission becomes, the less possible it is to tell when progress has been made.
  • The less people can tell when progress has been made, the less engaged they are.
  • The less engaged people are in the mission, the more irrelevant it seems.
  • Eventually stakeholders abandon the mission, it is de-funded and left to dissolve.
In my experience, situations like this can be gotten through, albeit somewhat painfully, if you take the perspective of brand and untangle the knot as if it were a Rubik's cube.
  • Question #1: Who cares?
  • Question #2: Why do they care enough to support the organization today?
  • Question #3: Why did they care in the beginning?
  • Question #4: Who is providing the funding?
  • Question #5: What is the connection between the most passionate stakeholders and the ones holding the purse strings?
Getting back to basics, cleaning up and clearing out the chaos, and restoring the organization is not an impossible task. Normally the organization is in a complicated "knot" wound too tightly to simply pull apart. But a magical thing happens when you identify its most passionate supporters and then connect the inside and the outside: They solve its unique Rubik's cube-like puzzle together.

Cookie-cutter solutions to strategy rarely work: They really are like driving by looking in the rearview mirror or peering sideways at the car sitting next to you at the stoplight. However by connecting inside with outside, you can form a very clear picture of what the customer wants so much they are willing to fund it, and why. The strategy then becomes to use your limited resources to provide exactly that. 

Give the people what they want, give it to them simply and directly, make the significance of your giving clear, help them to access and use the product. That's what it means to carry out your mission. 

Don't let your mission get muddled.

* All opinions my own.