Mission, Vision, Values, Behavior.   Doesn’t every organization have these?  I may be cynical, but don't you think many today are immune to the big 4 alignment tools – the “must haves” espoused by nearly every leadership book, management consultant and marketing department?  You would be hard pressed to find an organization’s web site that does not have at least one of these four.   Are you sensing sarcasm?  Yes, not because I don't believe in their use – they are essential. 

It’s not the words.   Words are important.  However, it’s the essential uses of words that are most important.  You see most organizations go through the exercise of creating words.  “We have to write a mission statement”… Check.   “We just completed our vision”… Check.   “Did you post our Values on the web site?” … Check.    Beautiful verbal decoration.   That's where work usually ends...or just after the required "roll out" sessions.

In successful organization culture, that's when real work begins: Using words to make decisions.  Here is where the first skill of alignment comes into use: Instilling Purpose.

Purpose makes it clear for people why they have to do the work, or why they must make a change.  One of my favorite discussions with clients is about purpose. If you have used the 5-Why tool before you will understand the fun. It's the same exercise your three year old  plays with you.  In this case, instead of using the tool to solve a problem - just ask "Why" are you about to ...".  Then after they give you the answer, ask "why" again.  Somewhere before you get to the fifth "why..." you will get a good picture of what the person thinks is the purpose of their actions.   It is interesting to read the statements of leaders and compare these to the understandings of purpose that come from these discussions. 

Purpose comes from understanding the expectations of others: customers, bosses, shareholders, and others in the organization.  A purpose statement condenses that down to a few guiding words. Purpose is performing your piece of the puzzle so that the whole picture comes together and makes sense.  Purpose is what your bosses, customers, colleagues are hoping you will deliver… but they may not do a good job of letting you know.  You find out what was really expected when it’s too late - when you have failed to deliver.  As a leader,  clarifying expectations - especially during times of change - is job #1.  It's not about explaining it once.  It's not about making one statement to fit everyone.  It is about making sure every unit and every person in the unit has little light bulbs of understanding going off in their head. 

A good purpose statement is crisp and practical.  It is direct and written in a way that can be easily remembered and used for decision making.  Purpose is the answer to the question “what you want me to do?” – It usually answers or at least connects to the other question “Why?”  When the big 4 are filled with pretty words the answers to  “Why?”,“Why me?”, “Why us?” or "What do you expect me to do?"  get lost.  Purpose statements help point the way out of confusion.

Nowhere is purpose more important than during a big change or a big challenge.   In World War II, the British Ministry of Information produced the now iconic "Keep Calm. Carry On." posters.  According to the blog  Holding The Line  The statement was designed to be “a statement of the duty of the individual citizen.”  A message from a King to his people.  In a way, this makes a pretty good purpose statement.  Not likely one I would use with an organization but for a citizenry facing a major threat with the possibility of unforeseen attacks - it works.

If you are in the middle of leading a big change or a response to a big challenge your first responsibility is clarifying, checking and reinforcing “purpose”.   There are things you can do which help - but it is an artful skill.   Get as much help as you can honing the skill.

In the next posting, I will give you some examples in “A Tale of Two Purposes.”

Leave a Reply.