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Systems Thinking: Connecting Self to Society


About Systems Thinking

A particularly interesting theory has emerged over time, which takes a deeper look into the interactivity of different levels of systems, whether in nature or in society.  Using a systems-thinking approach (von Bertalanffy, 2003 revised), an individual or a group considers the whole system and how different parts of that system interact with, or are affected by, other parts.  Instead of looking at an isolated situation (or problem), and then trying to fix or change that singular challenge in isolation, a systems-thinker looks for connections to other parts of the system.

In an attempt to understand why the situation is as it is, a systems-thinker attempts to uncover what is influencing this situation and what impact a change on the situation (or an outside influencer) could have to move towards the desired outcome

Here’s a hypothetical example: An individual in the marketing department begins using a new tool to streamline her communications with customers.  Because she is able to react–let’s say 10%–faster to requests, there is an effect on other parts of the system.  The 50-person manufacturing department now receives information about customer needs faster, which in turn allows them to improve quality by 25%.  A small change by one person had a larger effect on the rest of the organization, and improved customers’ experiences.  Had the organization looked to improve quality by focusing only on the testing division, perhaps a more complex “fix” to the situation would have resulted, and the costs could have been higher than the benefits.

Practicing Systems Thinking in Human Systems

Levels of System

First, take a look at the image to the left.  Notice how there are different levels with “self” at the center, and increasingly broader levels of system outside each concentric circle.  At the core of engaging in systems thinking, the individual (in this case, you) should review how their personal actions influence a particular situation, and how other levels of the system are affecting them in relation to the situation.  Then, the analysis moves to each concentric circle outwards.  Peter Senge’s top-seller, The Fifth Discipline (Senge, 2010 revised), explains this process in more detail.

Questions for thought include:

  • How do I influence my team (or family) in this situation?
  • How do they influence me?
  • How does my team/family influence our community?
  • How does our community influence our society?

After understanding these relationships of influence, the individual (you!) can begin to look for opportunities to take advantage of your influence to make change to improve your life as well as the lives of others.  It might sound daunting to make drastic changes in society, such as how to end poverty.  It likely is not in your sphere of influence or authority to be able to make sweeping socio-economic changes (or so you think).  This is where systems-thinking is so critical.  You have influence on someone—whether it is a friend, co-worker, or your Facebook readers.  Talking about the situation, sharing ideas, and taking action towards your end goal can begin to influence others to join in the change and transform the community.  As momentum grows, pressure is put on society to make these changes.

Recall the civil rights movements we have witnessed across the globe and in different eras.  There has usually been one person who decided to make a difference (think Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Theresa).  They began influencing their friends and family, and then reached out to their communities, and eventually began to influence society to change laws and behavior (equality for people of color in the USA for Dr. King and care of the poor–who are treated as outcasts without rights–for Mother Theresa, respectively).

Putting this into action, pull out a piece of paper and place your name in the middle along with a change you would like to make (no matter how big or small).  Next, write down what strengths or skills you have that you can use to make this change.   If there is anything about your self (behaviors/actions, beliefs, etc.) that you want to change, jot those down, too, and label them “aspirations.”  Draw a circle around this—it is your “self” sphere of influence.

Now, draw another circle around this one (leave some space to write down more ideas!) and label it “team” if you are doing this for work, or “family & friends” if it is a personal situation.  Now, write down on the left side how your team or family are impacting you in this situation, with an arrow pointing towards “self”.  On the other side, write down the ways you can begin to impact your team or family to help you make this change, with an arrow coming out of “self” towards “family & friends”.

Continue this exercise with increasingly larger parts of your system.  Next, consider what steps you will take today, tomorrow, next week, and beyond.  Consider some quick-win activities to help you see some accomplishment early on and feel confidence and accomplishment on your journey.  Avoid goals that you know are too lofty for yourself, which you are certain you would not achieve – keep them aspirational enough to help you change the situation, but realistic enough that you will feel motivated to continue through the process.  As you gain more practice and realize what you are capable of doing, adding increasingly more challenging goals will help you do even more and more.

Potential Benefits

Have you noticed crowds of people going in the same direction, but no one can explain exactly where they are going or why?  Have you seen societies or cultures act together, but most people cannot explain why they are behaving that way, except to say “because everyone else is doing it!”?  Following a herd is easy to do, and it is easy to believe that your actions have no consequences, because the whole group or crowd or society is acting that way… so it must be acceptable.  However, your actions do have consequences and you are responsible for your own behavior – even if only to answer to your own conscience.  Using systems thinking empowers you to take only those actions you want to take, not the ones others force or compel you to do.

In addition, by assessing situations from a systems perspective, you are likely to understand how you impact systems, and how systems impact you.  This way, you can navigate better the situation, and either influence the system or ask others for what you want or need in a way that is more likely to result in a positive outcome.  Ben Stein has said, “The first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: Decide what you want.”  If you do not yet know exactly what you want in the context of the system, expect an uphill climb to getting what you want.  Knowing the consequences or reactions to changes in the system that bring you what you want out of life will make it easier to carve a path that navigates you to your goal.

Good luck on your journey to understanding your self and the systems in which you operate.  Post your goals, or the journey you have taken.


Senge, P. (2010 revised). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Crown Publishing Group.

von Bertalanffy, L. (2003 revised). General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. Penguin University Books.

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Automating, Syncing, and Integrating IT Services

This past week has been chock full of information technology (IT) upgrades for the non-profit board (alumni association of my graduate program) of which I am a leader.  For a bit of background, our current website platform has some technical limitations that cause extra time and effort to coordinate between committees in order to process membership requests, dues payments, and renewal reminders.  It almost makes me wonder whether a paper-and-mail process would be quicker–though I thought my stamp-licking days were over after undergrad!

Short of having the time, luck, and technical skills to transplant all the data and member profiles to a new system overnight, we are making 2014 the year to overhaul our online presence.  Yet, my patience is tested a bit too much having to wait months to fix some of the technical roadblocks and bottlenecks our current site so delightfully offers us.  In the meantime, I’ve made it my week’s purpose to upgrade and overhaul some other information-sharing and collaboration processes in order to keep us on track, informed, and able to make intelligent decisions.  Going beyond the content of one of our previous articles, here is a snapshot of a few ways we are taking advantage of IT to help us work together in a mostly virtual environment:


Now that we are rethinking how technology can serve our administrative needs (member join and renewal processes) and connect our constituents (social media), it could become cumbersome to update multiple databases with the same information when a member joins the association.  Instead, we’ve added an automated service provided by Zapier to help streamline moving data from our Google Drive contact list to our MailChimp email list.  Not only does this cut down double data entry, but it also reduces the risk of leaving off new members from our email list, which we use to distribute the organization’s newsletter.

How this works is, Zapier, along with other similar service providers, allow you to connect different web products together.  You can then ask Zapier to take action B when update A occurs.  For us, the action is to update the email list in MailChimp when a new record is added to our Google Drive spreadsheet.  Other actions and connections with many online tools are available, making it scalable and flexible as our needs change and grow over time.


It is hard to express my deep gratitude to Google for creating Drive (formerly Docs) with its robust collaboration and online sharing capabilities.  Gone are the days (so long as I can help promote the use of Drive within my team) of sharing a document by email with 10 people, hoping each person downloads it with a unique name, edits it with track changes, and then reading 10+ versions of the same file unable to easily decipher which changes should be incorporated in the final document.  My head used to ache when documents would fail to open because the file name was the same as an already-open version, or having to take extra time to create a relay-style editing process, waiting for one person to make changes and then passing on to the next until everyone has had a turn.

Instead, we stay in sync with only one version of a Google Doc, which multiple people can edit online–even simultaneously.  With versioning controls and track changes built in, and a seamless way to view a final-draft version of the document, I praise this service highly!  We also have begun to use Google’s other online product, Hangouts, to sync with each other using video conferencing and document sharing so we can boost our productivity in a virtual team environment.

Another syncing method we use is the wise social-media service, HootSuite.  Using this product, we can connect and post the same message to multiple social-media accounts with one clicks.  This saves time and frustration, as we no longer need to log into each account separately and copy-paste the content one-by-one.


Yes, I am about to applaud Google again.  With Gmail, I enjoy being able to include a Google Drive file into an email without actually attaching it.  Instead, a link is provided to the document, which can be set up so that the recipients can view only, make comments, or have full edit rights to the document.  Adding links within documents to other files makes it easier to integrate a fuller picture and make a more robust reader experience for my audience.

The association is looking to rebuild the way information and the user experience integrate with each other once we launch a new website on a better platform.  The goal is to include widgets–or plug-and-play tools–to allow systems to talk to each other and share information so that our users can have the documents, photos, videos, and other content at their fingertips without having to create multiple logins and accounts to access the services and content we want to provide.  Users familiar with WordPress will comment on the myriad pre-built widgets available to make almost limitless integrations with services such as–dare I say again–Google products, or MailChimp sign-up forms for newsletter campaigns, just to name a few.

As we begin to re-look at how we do business and investigate the tools out there that automate, sync-up, and integrate the specialized services that different companies provide, I look forward to building a user-friendly and comprehensive online presence for the association’s membership, as well as for its administrators.

What about You?

Leave a comment below about the IT products you use to simplify your online connection, or post a question about how to make your life easier using technology.

Special recognitions go to Dan, Ray, and Jay for tips you’ve shared with over the years!

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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).


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.


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.


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.


Appreciative Inquiry Commons (n.d.).  Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University.  Retrieved from:

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
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!

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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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!


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.