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The Plop – Ideas that Go Nowhere

The Plop

“Maybe it’d be a good idea if we _____(insert idea to expend the organization’s resources here)_______.”

How many times have you heard that line, in some form or another, in meetings?  (I lost count years ago!)  Now, how many times did a tangible result come from it?  (almost never!)  Instead, the person who made the suggestion plopped the idea and left it to fade into the ether of the great-ideas-we-never-implemented space that clutters our mental energy.

The “plop” is a suggestion that is made, but the creative mind offering it puts the onus of making decisions onto the group without driving the conversation about who will lead the idea, who will assist in its implementation, what the timeline for completing the suggestion will be, and which resources are required.  When this happens, the (perhaps) excellent thought falls to the ground, loses its gusto, and carries zero momentum forward.  Fret not, there is a remedy!

Turning a Plop into a Plan for Action

Your coworker or peer volunteer just made another plop in your three-hour-long meeting.  Everyone has lost interest, because the pattern of ideas that go nowhere keeps repeating.  You feel overwhelmed by all these suggestions that “we could do, and it’d be great!”.  Now what?

Step one: ask the person making the plop to take ownership of her or his idea.

Pose a few questions to help shape the plop into something the team can manage.  Ask the plopper what she or he would like to do to move the idea forward: will s/he be the project manager?  Will s/he play a supporting role on the project?

Find out more details about the idea so there is a clear picture of the expectations if the concept were to become reality.  Also, query which resources are necessary to make progress, and compare this need to a list of resources the team has at their disposal.

Step two: build the idea into a proposal.

The team now needs to consider the purpose of the idea–what will this suggestion solve, do, or change?  Additionally, a serious look at how strongly the idea connects to the organization’s mission, vision, and strategic objectives will provide guidance on whether the project is worthwhile for the organization.  Further, the team should consider who will do what, when, how, and with which resources.

Step three: make a decision.

From the inquiry in steps one and two, it will become clearer whether the plopper and others have time, energy, and resources to proceed, and it will uncover the degree to which there is alignment to the overall organization’s purpose.  These considerations make it easier for the team to make a decision whether to move forward with the idea: (a) move forward and enjoy a new adventure or (b) walk away from the idea with some new lessons on how to manage a plop.

Benefits of the Process

Regardless of the choice in step three, this process will build your team’s capacity to manage its decision-making, especially its ability to prioritize which projects best align with the organization’s strategy.  It also aims to reduce the number of plops in the long term, because teammates will realize that coming to a meeting unprepared is no longer the easy way out.  Instead of passing the work of building out a proposal to the team with little direction or leadership, anyone suggesting an idea will need to do some homework before dropping myriad plops onto the group.

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Build a Vision, Change Reality: Four Steps to Dream Big and Deliver

I recently led the design and delivery of a one-hour, high-impact training session on how to engineer ideas to a room full of my colleagues: consultants, technical gurus, designers, and senior managers at a global consulting and marketing agency.  Prior sessions that my coworkers had designed–each on diverse topics–included 50 minutes of lecture, a few minutes of Q&A with the audience, and then a few minutes of feedback.  Thinking to myself, different designs could have more impact, especially for a room full of intelligent adult learners, I wanted to create a session that was more interactive.

A vision began to form in my mind as I designed the course, and it was basically this: provide a lot of research-backed information about how to be a more effective strategy consultant, centered on adult-learning methods, that engages energy, while going deep into the topic.  It seemed unrealistic…almost.  As I began to recruit a team of fellow organization development peers (a rare breed in the firm!), I realized that our collective minds would be able to bring this vision into reality.

What Is a Vision?

A vision, as Daft (2011) defines it, is “a picture of an ambitious, desirable future for the organization or team.”  Let’s break that into manageable chunks:  The first part of this definition is to design or paint a picture–perhaps not so literally as creating a piece of art when it comes to organizations and teams, but rather this aspect is more about crafting an image of what the future will look like for the organization.  Next, Daft describes visions with the word ambitious.  This means that visions require a sort of stretching of the imagination.  A new future will take effort to achieve; it will not be simple to accomplish greatness!  The term “desirable future” refers to what the organization imagines will serve its stakeholders in a beneficial way.  Lastly, Daft’s definition is geared towards organization- and team leaders, who have the responsibility to craft and implement visions.  Find out how to develop a vision that fits your organization and how to move towards it.

How to Build a Vision and Deliver It in Four Steps

Based on research from Cooperrider & Whitney (1990), and the subsequent writings by Watkins & Mohr (2001), there are four stages to build a vision and make it happen.  These four steps come from the Four-D Model, which has roots in Appreciative Inquiry (AI).  Outlined below, anyone can use the Four Ds (discover, dream, design, deliver) for practically any sort of visioning and change work.  Whether an individual looking to make a personal life-altering decision; or a team seeking a better way of operating together; or British Airways, a multi-national corporation exploring a new competitive strategy, this model has proved to be impactful (Watkins & Mohr, 2011).

Discover

During this introductory stage, it is important to analyze and explore the organization’s or team’s past successes and accomplishments.  The point is to focus creative energy on the positive (Watkins & Mohr, 2011); in this case, what has already worked.  At the crux of AI is the attention to possibilities. 

Tapping into positive energy from past accomplishments aids the organization or team to catapult itself into a creative mindset.  This then transcends into behaviors that enable the organization or team to make strides towards its ambitious vision.  When designing the course for my colleagues, I first recognized prior research on AI that I had conducted during graduate school, as well as the previous experiences using an Appreciative Inquiry approach on consulting projects.  This, along with the realization that I could build a team to deliver the course, helped me to build confidence that I have knowledge and skills to deliver the ambitious vision.

Dream

In this second phase of the Four-D model, the goal is to tap into the team’s creativity.  Brainstorm, ideate, design.  Whatever term or concept of dreaming ideas of possible future states (visions!) supports your understanding of this phase will work.  No idea is too crazy, stupid, or ridiculous during this step.  Encourage teammates with diverse experiences and thinking styles to participate.  Research shows that groups with diverse thinking styles come up with better solutions than groups of experts of a singular subject matter (Page, 2007).

Perhaps your mind is getting stuck in negativity: Our budget is too small.  We don’t have enough time.  Last time we tried this, we failed.  Take a deep breath and think about what would be the ideal future state if you had millions of dollars, or 5 more months of time, or if you had succeeded last time.  Break free of the negative thinking; be creative.  During the course planning, once I had formed a team of co-facilitators, we came up with 4 or 5 designs on how to deliver the course material, not to mention the 20 or 30 iterations of decisions on what that material would be!  Every idea was put on the table for consideration, which is part of the next step.

Design

Your creative ideas are beginning to flow by now, and you have at least 5 different ideas, right?  Now what?  In the Design stage, it is important to begin to make decisions on what your future state should look like.  In the Dream phase, you came up with multiple options, ignoring roadblocks, tapping into potential visions of a better future.  

Perhaps you have begun to prioritize these ideas into which is most important, or which option best suits the needs of your stakeholders.  During the Design phase, you can begin to design an action plan, or map the elements of the decided vision.  

Back to the course planning, our committee met one or two times each week to iterate our ideas.  We began to capture designs of the slides that would support our lecture points, as well as refine the interactive components.  We analyzed each section of the plan, comparing our objectives and desired vision to ensure we kept ourselves on track.  By the last planning session, we had created a clear plan for the speaking points, activities, and handouts.  We were ready to practice and then deliver.  

Each decision you make in this phase to clarify what the organization or team will do to reach its vision will enable successful implementation in the final phase.  

This is where the hard work creating a vision pays off.  As you begin to roll out the vision and take steps towards reaching it, your team or organization can benefit from a constant reminder of past accomplishments, current skills and abilities, and the desired future state (vision).  Perhaps a roadblock pops up during the implementation.  Reframing your perspective of “roadblock” to “opportunity to innovate” will allow the organization to maintain a positive outlook and continue to practice using the Four-D model to modify the vision or its delivery.

In the case of the course planning, we delivered the vision on the day of the session.  Using the framework of our session plan, our team had confidence that our design would have a positive impact on the participants.  At one point, participants were very energetic on a particular part of the session, and so we modified our design live with a mini committee meeting as participants did some small-group work.  Our iteration on the design in the moment allowed us to maintain a balanced flow while also covering all the materials.  Therefore, it is important to remain flexible as those opportunities for innovation are certain to arise.

Take Action

Now that you have learned the basics of Appreciative Inquiry’s Four-D Model, try it out.  This article focused on organization and team, however the model is applicable to individual and community levels as well.  Practice the model on your own with a personal vision.  Take yourself through some personal discover, dreaming of the future, designing your own action plan, and then making a personal life change.  Remember to be ambitions and look for possibilities!

By the way, the course described in this article went well.  We met our own objectives and received positive feedback from participants even a week after the session.  It was rewarding to try something new, work hard to deliver an ambitious vision, and learn what worked well as well as what we could innovate for the next time.

References

Appreciative Inquiry Commons (n.d.).  Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University.  Retrieved from: http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/default.cfm.

Cooperrider, D.L. & Whitney, D (2001) A positive revolution in change. In Cooperrider, D. L. Sorenson, P., Whitney, D. & Yeager, T. (eds.) Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging Direction for Organization Development (9-29). Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Daft, R. (2011). The Leadership Experience (5th ed.). Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.

Page, S. (2007). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princetone University Press.

Watkins, J., & Mohr, B. (2001). Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

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Writing Better Business Emails | From Send to Done

Email Culture

Inboxes fill up each day with messages from bosses, coworkers, IT departments, SPAM, and other sources.  Crafting an email message that catches attention (so it bypasses the Trashcan), clearly conveys your message, entices others into action, and maintains relationships is tough business.

Think of the last time you opened your email inbox at work.  How many messages did you delete without opening?  How many of the remaining messages did you just skim?  Which messages sparked your “get it done” energy?  The answer to the first question is probably a high percentage, and your count for the latter question probably is close to zero!

Now, think about how many times you yelled (either out loud or silently in your imagination) at the sender, or you read a message in all-caps thinking you were being yelled at?  Interpreting tone–as well as attempting to convey tone when authoring written messages–is quite challenging and frequently leads to anger, frustration, confusion, [insert emotion here] when tone is miscommunicated.  Prepare to re-think how you view email, as well as how you use it as a communication tool for your business.

Basics of the Communication Process & Channel Richness

Despite popular practice, Email should not be the primary method of communication in business.  The reason relates to Shannon & Weaver’s (1949) Transmission Model, where there is a sender, a receiver, and a channel.  The sender is the one conveying the messages, the receiver is the one who receives the communication, and the channel is the medium of communication (email, phone, in-person, etc.).  The act of communication involves the sender “encoding” a message, sending it through the channel/medium, the receiver “decoding” the message, and the receiver providing feedback to the sender that the message was received.

With this model, there are three challenges to communication: (a) messages might not be transmitted accurately (a technical problem), (b) the message might be conveyed in a confusing manner (a semantics problem), or (c) how effectively the message imparts the desired behavior (an effectiveness problem).  Now comes the important factor: message richness in relation to the selected medium.  Compare the amount of information you can process in a 5-minute conversation to the amount of information you can glean from an email chain of message.  Relying on email as the main channel for communication (especially for complex messages) increases the risk of semantic errors–the message might not be conveyed with easy-to-understand wording.  It also increases the risk of semantics problems.  The benefit is that the channel itself (email servers) are fairly reliable, so technical problems generally are low-risk for email.

Without a strong (and fast) feedback mechanism, written communication suffers in richness when compared to in-person or phone calls.  The sender must wait for the receiver to read and attempt to understand the message.  Then they must craft a new email reply to (hopefully) relay their understanding or ask questions.  The process volleys until the message is understood (in the meantime, the sender probably is engaged in four other email conversation, is on the phone, or has stepped away for lunch).  With verbal or in-person communication, the entire process is nearly instantaneous.  The receiver can ask a clarifying question immediately after the message is delivered.  There is no waiting; there is no reply-all; there is only live dialogue.  Email also lacks  verbal cues: A confused look on the receivers face cannot be conveyed to the sender as the receiver reads a complex email.  Therefore, the sender assumes the receiver understands the message, unless the receiver speaks up.

When to Use Email

The low level of message “richness” shows that other forms, such as phone calls, video-conferences, and in-person meetings provide more suitable communications methods for complex messages or for the added human element for fostering relationships (Baldoni, 2003).  Email, however, is a great way to follow-up tasks, reiterate what was agreed in a previous meeting, or convey a quick message after hours or between meetings.  Electronic communications also allow virtual teams to stay connected when time zones are a factor, and they allow for broadcasting messages to a wider audience to reiterate corporate or team goals, mission, or values.  Consider which medium is best suited for the particular type of information relay that is needed.

Email is well suited, thus, for those low-priority information exchanges that do not require immediate attention, have a low level of complexity to comprehend and respond, and do not require an emotional exchange to occur.  If you find that you are becoming frustrated during an email exchange, take it as a cue to pick up the phone, open a video conference line, or visit the person live.  Writing effective emails, in addition, is important to reducing the risk of semantics problems and improving response rates when you need a reply, information, or a commitment from a group of recipients en masse.

How to Write Emails that Get Work Done

There are many ways to build a bridge, organize a closet, or write an email message.  Below are the steps that we at Corvis Group prefer to use.  Deciding when to be flexible with these steps ensures that we do what is best for our clients, our company, and the situation at hand.  While it might seem daunting reading the steps, they are quite simple in practice.  You will get the hang of them very quickly as you use this method a couple of times.

  • Start with the end message you want to convey.  What is it that you really want the reader to take away, contribute, do, etc.?  This is the core of the message–the raison d’être for your email.  Without knowing what the core message is, close your email program or webpage and find something else to do; the people you were about to email will be grateful to have one less confusing or unnecessary email in their already-full inbox!
  • Determine whether email is the best option.  Now, when you do have a core message (perhaps you want your coworker to send you a file), determine whether email is the best option.  If not, would it be faster, more useful, build a stronger relationship (or avert damaging an existing one!) if you picked up the phone, walked down the hall, or set up a quick Google Hangout or Webex session?
  • If you answered yes at Step 2, then you are ready to write down your core message.  I like to use this as the Subject Line.  It puts up front what I need, giving the reader the opportunity to prioritize my request with all the other questions they might have received from twenty others in the past few minutes.  Everything else about the email you are about to craft really should align with and relate to your core message.  If it does not, then it is clutter, and you should keep that as a personal thought–write it in a notepad.
  • Next, determine the audience.  There are different types of audiences to whom you would like to write this email.  Here are a few things to consider when completing this step:Who are the “doers” for your email–the people you want to actually do something after they read your message?
  • Who are the “informants” for the message–the people you want to become aware of the content of your message, but not necessarily take action?
  • Who is your “backup” for the action–the person/people who can fill in should you become sick tomorrow?
  • Who else are you thinking of sending this email to?  If you are unable to fit them into one or more of the above categories, consider omitting them from receiving the message.  It is possible that superfluous recipients will turn your message into a traffic jam of “reply all” clutter (that will be another topic) for everyone’s inbox, should they decide to “chime in,” as many like to call it.
  • Write down each of the people you have brainstormed for the above four categories.  Doing this step on paper will help you with step 8 below, avoiding that accidental click of the send button before auto-correct changed a random word to an expletive!
  • Write the message.  The hardest part is designing the message to do its purpose: inform people, recap/document a plan or agreement, ask for action, or do something else entirely.If your purpose is to inform people, then consider writing clearly what the main takeaway is.  Write that key point early in the message and include supporting evidence, speaking points, etc. that ensure the reader has the information you want them to glean.
  • A tip from us at Corvis is to clearly call each person by name (in bold print, sometimes in a different color) in the email, just as you would in a meeting, to state the agreed action item and include the details and due date for that item.  This way, if you are requesting or documenting action items, there will be little question who is responsible for what and when.  This step alleviates the tendency to drop an action item onto the group without an “owner,” and after hours of awaiting a response, wondering why no one wants to take ownership.
  • For emails with a completely different purpose, ensure that you clearly write what the intent of the message is, who is responsible which pieces, the agreed/proposed deadlines, and any other information you want readers to learn or action you want them to take.  Everything else is a distraction.  Keep your message concise, yet informative.
  • (Good) pictures speak louder than words.  If you have a diagram, flow chart, or table in your message or attachment that helps to convey the message, include it.  Visuals are great ways to convey the message you want to impart.  BUT–be sure that the picture, diagram, or other visual supports your message and is not distracting, confusing, or too complex for the reader to understand without you there in-person to describe.
  • Ensure your message and supportive documents, graphics, etc. speak to your intended audience.  Remember the categories of the audience you outlined on paper in Step 4?  Now is the time to double-check that your email makes sense to them.  Read your email as though you are the “doers.”  Is it clear to you that you have an action item assigned to you and a do date?  Could you complete the task with the information provided?  If you answered no, then your message needs revised until you can answer with an honest “yes.”
  • Proofread, edit, and proofread again.  I lost count of the number of employees in Fortune 500 companies who write “your” when they mean “you’re” (you + are) in an email over and over again.  Writing with solid spelling and grammar will take you far in life, especially if you interact with the public, stakeholders for your organization, or senior leaders.  Each person with whom you interact builds or refines their perception of you based on how you present yourself, and that includes your email-writing skills.  Want to set your best foot forward?  Take advantage of this step!  Pause–go get a coffee or tea–then come back to your draft message and read it.  For more important messages, have a coworker read it.  Make sure it is clear, concise, fits the audience, and shows off how smart and capable you are!
  • Add your audience.  Here at Corvis, the “To” line is for the “doers” in the message audience.  These are the main people we want to take action, so their emails go in the top line.  This helps you to check the message against responses in order to determine who has written back or completed their action–just look at the To line for your “doers.”  Anyone else we want to be informed goes in the “CC” line (unless there are no “doers” for the message, in which case, we typically use only the To line).  “BCC” is a rarely-used option for Corvis Group.  It is mis-aligned with our value for honesty and openness, and so we prefer not to use it.
  • Click Send!  Your message is on its way, and hopefully your message helps business to move forward in a positive way.

Example Email

To: Pat Doe
CC: Chris Smith
Subject: Action Request | Annual Report Needs 3 Donor Profiles by 6/7/2013
Message:
Hi Pat,
As we discussed yesterday during the weekly managers’ meeting, the Annual Report will now include a “Donor Profile” section.  We agreed that you will write three profiles by June 7, at which time the Editing Team will review the draft text. I CCd Chris from the Editing Team so we are all on the same page. Chris agreed to have the final edits to us by June 9, which will ensure we are on schedule to publish by mid-month.
Would you please keep me updated on your progress and let me know when you have time to meet with our spotlighted donors for an interview?  I am available between noon and 3:00 each day this week. 
This project is a very exciting addition to our Annual Report and will provide high value to our readers and our donors!
Thanks,
Alex

Baldoni, J. (2003).  Great communication secrets of great leaders.  New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Shannon, C. & Weaver, W. (1949).  The mathematical theory of communication.  Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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Leader Profile: Christine Lagarde | Controversy or Inherent Risks of Leadership?

Introduction

As global leaders become increasingly involved in affairs that impact domestic issues and policies, it is important to become aware of the controversies, challenges, and successes that surround them.  Christine Lagarde is one of the most powerful women in the world.  As she recently became target of an ethical and legal investigation with the French government as a former government official, questions arise regarding followers’ perceptions and reactions to global leaders’ involvement in controversies.

It is curious to ponder whether the investigation will impact (negatively or positively) Ms. Lagarde’s influence on global economic policies.  Will world authorities trust her leadership?

Perhaps Ms. Lagarde’s decision in the case was perfectly legal and ethical based on the information she had available.  Did she become target of the investigation based on her gender, her level of power and influence, her wealth?  These and other questions should come to mind while reading this Leader Profile as well as relevant sources on the issue.

At the end of the Profile, additional discussion questions are available to prompt critical thinking and analysis.

Christine Lagarde

Ranked #7 Power Women by Forbes (“Christine Lagarde,” n.d.) in 2013 (up from #8 in 2012), Ms. Lagarde is the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  A French national, Lagarde has two children and spent part of her career in the United States as a labor and antitrust attorney.  Lagarde is also the first woman to hold a finance/economy ministry position for a G-7 country (“Christine Lagarde,” 2011).

In 2009, Christine Lagarde was ranked the 17th most influential woman in the world by Forbes magazine, the 5th best European executive woman by The Wall Street Journal Europe, and became one of Time magazine’s top-100 world leaders. The Financial Times named her European Finance Minister of 2009.” (“Christine Lagarde,” 2011)

Her impressive résumé makes her a strong candidate for positions requiring strong leadership abilities and skills to revitalize failing systems.

Upon ascending to the position of Managing Director of the IMF, her main focus was to resurrect the European economy from a debt crisis (Forbes, n.d.).  While in this position, Ms. Lagarde had become target of investigation over her involvement with an ethical situation in France.

Controversy: Investigation of Ms. Lagarde

The controversy in question is whether Christine Lagarde unethically decided to privately arbitrate in 2008 a €250 million ($385 million) payment to a supporter of former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy (“IMF’s Largarde,” 2013).  During the time of the arbitration, Lagarde was Finance Minister under then-President Sarkozy, and simultaneously a legal dispute erupted between a Mr. B. Tapie and the French government.

The case came about when Mr. Tapie sued the state after he sold his stake in Adidas to a state-owned bank.  Tapie claims that the state unethically entered the transaction, because it sold the shares for Adidas for a much higher sum (“IMF’s Lagarde,” 2013).  Lagarde became target of investigation over questions regarding her decision to arbitrate the large payment, ignoring adviser’s urging to seek settlement in court (“IMF’s Lagarde,” 2013).

After much time the public wondered whether French officials might indict Ms. Lagarde, drop the investigation, or take another course of action, French magistrates reduced Lagarde’s status from “under investigation” to “supervised witness” (“IMF’s Lagarde,” 2013).  Upon the decision, Ms. Lagarde stated, “My explanations answered questions raised about the decisions that I had made at the time.”  She told reporters, “my status as a supervised witness is not a surprise for me because I always acted in the interest of the state and according to the law” (“IMF’s Lagarde,” 2013).

Reuters continues to analyze the decision, stating: “The status of supervised witness means that in any future hearings, Lagarde would answer questions as a witness accompanied by a lawyer.  It is much less serious than being placed under formal investigation, which would have indicated ‘serious or consistent evidence’ pointing to her probable implication in a crime” (“IMF’s Lagarde,” 2013).

Lagarde’s Leadership

Some might argue an investigation is neither proof nor evidence of wrongdoing, and therefore, analysis of Lagarde’s leadership impact is unnecessary.  Yet others might weigh her leadership impact against the allegations of the investigation in order to come to their own conclusion.

On Lagarde’s leadership results, Charlton (2013) writes, “Lagarde has earned praise for her negotiating skills as managing director of the IMF through Europe’s debt crisis and is seen as a trailblazer for women leaders.”  In 2012, the IMF spent over $15 billion in assistance funds to support economies in need, with $4.4 billion already spent in 2013 Q1 (“IMF Financial Activities,” 2013).  Additional resources below (see “References”) point to further discussion on her leadership style and impact.

Discussion Questions

  1. If a leader who inspires you is under investigation, does that influence how you view their leadership?   In what way?
  2. Is controversy an inherent risk to leadership?  If so, does this risk increase for high-profile leaders?
  3. Do you believe it was just to bring Ms. Lagarde under investigation?  Explain why or why not.
  4. Watch the Q&A session with Ms. Lagarde on the BBC’s HARDtalk.  What are your reactions to how Ms. Lagarde responds to questions about the IMF and global economies?

References

Charlton, Angela (2013).  “Christine Lagarde, IMF Chief, Questioned in Court over Fraud Probe.”  The Huffington Post.  Retrieved June 3, 2013, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/christine-lagarde-imf-chief-questioned_n_3326106.html.

“Christine Lagarde.” (2011).  International Monetary Fund (IMF).  Retrieved June 3, 2013, from http://www.imf.org/external/np/omd/bios/cl.htm.

“Christine Lagarde.” (n.d.).   Forbes.  Retrieved June 3, 2013, from http://www.forbes.com/profile/christine-lagarde/.

“IMF Financial Activities – Update May 30, 2013.” (2013).  International Monetary Fund (IMF).  Retrieved June 3, 2013, from http://www.imf.org/external/np/tre/activity/2013/053013.htm.

“IMF’s Lagarde Escapes Formal Investigation in Court.” (2013).  Reuters.  Retrieved June 3, 2013, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/24/us-imf-lagarde-france-idUSBRE94N0UW20130524.

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Mission: Unconfidential

Purpose of a Mission

Organizations, teams, and even individuals and communities often have a mission.  In essence, a mission is a purpose, a reason for being.  With a clear and well-understood mission, it becomes possible to understand what goals, activities, and resources are necessary.  Without a mission, members lack a common ground to understand boundaries or decide which actions would move the organization, team, or self forward and use resources efficiently.  Even strategy consultants–whose focus is on assisting organizations with mission, vision, and strategy–have difficulty setting missions for their own organizations.  Below are a few examples of how organizations turned to “mission” to solve problems.

Recently, I experienced working with three organizations all struggling to set a clear plan for the future, because the mission was not clearly stated, was not understood, or was not even written anywhere.  All three organizations are in the field of consulting; I am on the board for two of these small non-profits and working with a newly-formed working group at the third.

For the non-profit boards of directors, we are in the midst of strategizing long-term plans, but the missions lack clarity.  For one, the mission statement is not posted for members or leaders to reference, and board members recently struggled to make a critical decision related to a strategic initiative.  We became stuck in our discussion without hope for resolution.  How should we focus our resources?  How should we design our structure?  What should we offer to our members?  These questions and more stemmed from our lack of a clear mission.

In the second non-profit, we are writing a one-year plan, but data from interviews and surveys reveal that members and leaders alike are unclear of the organization’s mission.  In order to determine how to spend our volunteer time and energy, it became evident that knowing the boundaries–the mission–is the most crucial step.  We decided that we cannot assure that the planned member benefits would be optimal until we clarified our understanding of the mission statement.  Without a clear mission, it is noticeable from the data feedback, that current and prospective members struggle to determine whether they should spend money on member dues, because they do not understand the purpose of the organization.

At the third organization (a large consultancy), a new diversity & inclusion working group is forming a business case to secure investments of both financial resources and leadership support from executives.  To build the case, we realized the importance of setting the framework and boundaries of what we want to accomplish by drafting a mission statement.  From the mission, all other planning can align, including the long-term goals and action items.

Individuals, too, can form a mission to guide life decisions (both career and private).  A solid personal mission is both cure for even the slightest inkling of a purposeless life, and a compass during moments of confusion over which path to take next.

Benefits of a Useful Mission

Imagine you just received an acceptance letter to attend university for an undergraduate degree.  Without selecting a major, you could enroll into myriad courses for six or more years without earning a particular degree.  This is because universities typically offer many options for different subjects, and with so many choices, it is difficult to make focused decisions about which courses to take in order to earn a degree.

Now imagine that you have selected a major.  It becomes easy to determine which courses to select, ruling out the courses that do not fit the major.  With a clear purpose, you are on your way to graduating in four years!  In this example, selecting a major is analogous to selecting a mission for university studies.  The major guides your course-registration decisions in just the same way as a mission guides decisions within organizations.

A Gallup poll finds that employees working for organizations with mission statements that they believe are an important cause or purpose have higher engagement, increased pride in their work, and produce at higher rates (in Daft, 2011).  Additional critical benefits of a clear and useful mission, according to Bryson (2004) and Daft (2011), include:

  • Enabling discussions and decisions to focus on what is most important (Bryson, 2004);
  • Providing a judgment system to determine which structure is best, which resources to use, which strategy will succeed, and how to handle conflict;
  • Guiding actions that have a higher purpose, rather than self-serving ones; and
  • Building stronger teams using a common purpose (the mission) as a glue to bring people together (Daft, 2011).

Elements of a Strong Mission

Missions answer why the organization exists.  They establish a broad-level strategy and provide guiding principals, as Hodge, Anthony, and Gales (2003) write. To communicate the mission across the organization (staff, volunteers, managers, executives) and to outsiders (customers, prospective clients, the media, and others), a carefully crafted mission statement is vital.

While many organizations develop a catchy mission statement that sounds clever or witty, if it is ineffective in communicating the purpose of the organization, then it fails at its primary purpose.  Likewise, long and wordy mission statements could be confusing or turn people away from reading them.  Therefore, it is important to create a mission statement that catches attention, aligns with the organization’s culture, and explains the purpose clearly.  Culture is important here, because if the mission statement gives off a mood that misaligns with the mood of the culture, stakeholders will notice the mismatch and feel less inclined to use the mission as a guide.

What’s Your Mission?

Now that you have read about the importance of a mission, what is your mission?  What is your team’s or your organization’s mission?  If any of these missions is unclear, you likely struggle to make accurate decisions on how to set a budget, schedule staff, create a strategic or action plan, manage resources, or make appropriate life choices.

Take a few moments to think about your talents and your passions.  How can you utilize these strengths to form a personal mission for your life and career.  In your organization or team, a working group composed of representatives from different stakeholder groups also can consider the organization’s purpose, focusing on core strengths and opportunities.  Another approach is to consider the problem that the organization or team hopes to solve for society or its marketshare.

Share your mission by posting it below.  I am curious to hear what your purpose is!

References

Bryson, J. (2004).  Strategic planning for public and nonprofit organizations: A guide to strengthening and sustaining organizational achievement (3rd Ed.).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Daft, R. (2011).  The leadership experience (5th Ed.).  Mason, OH: South-Western CENGAGE Learning.

Hodge, B., Anthony, W., & Gales, L. (2003).  Organization theory: A strategic approach (6th Ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.