While working with a startup group of entrepreneurs, we bumped into the notion of writing a mission statement. While this is a common practice, it can often lead to a bunch of meaningless words. There is a much better way of setting the course of an organization.
Setting the direction
There is nothing more exciting that working with a start up. You have a clean slate to work with, a group of enthusiastic, driven and talented people, and a mass of unrealized potential ahead of you. However, in order to survive the onslaught of complexity we all have to deal with today, you’d better know exactly what it is you are trying to achieve. The direction has to be clear and it has to be shared. This is the solid foundation that allows you to build.
When we work with organizations on strategy and planning from a systemic viewpoint, we start with all the Undesirable Effects they are experiencing. This is like a set of symptoms that allow us to dig down to the root cause of what is ailing the organization so something can be done. Once we have framed the core conflict of the organization, then we can ask the right questions to figure out what the needs are that are driving their behaviour. Those needs are driven by fears and desires. In the case of a startup, they haven’t yet developed those Undesirable Effects. They are new. They don’t operate, but as a group, they still have fears and they still have desires, so that is where we start.
Fears and desires as our drivers
No matter what situation we are in, as human beings, ultimately we have two very deep drivers. These are our fears and our desires, and they manifest themselves in a myriad of ways. This is as true for organizations as it is for individuals, because organizations are made up of individuals and they are shaped by what those people think and how they act. When we are working with a Startup on strategy, we ask them to list what their fears and desires are. Generally speaking, fears are connected with security and control, whereas desires are connected with vision and growth. Both of these needs are perfectly legitimate and do not need to be put into question. Clearly, if we are dominated by our fears, we limit what we are able to do. On the other hand, if we are dominated by our desires, we may have unrealistic expectations.
Why a mission statement doesn’t cut it
In order to give any organization, Startups included, a direction, we must know what their fears and desires are, and we verbalize these fears as needs. For example, a fear of financial failure could manifest in a need for control of spending, and a desire or vision for creating new products could manifest in a need for innovation. Needs are legitimate and not in conflict, but we must be aware of these two, fundamental drivers in order to give an organization a realistic goal. This is why a Mission Statements doesn’t cut it. It is a bunch of words put together, but if it is not constructed in a made-to-measure away around the real needs of the organization, then it is at best misleading and at worst a bunch of platitudes. This is because it will always be the needs (fears and desires) to drive the actions of the organization, whether they are aware of it or not.
A System is a network of interdependent components that work together (to try) to accomplish the aim of the system.
Whether an organization realizes it or not, it is a system, and a system must have a goal. In order to coordinate all the efforts of the components of the system most effectively, there has to be a true goal, and that goal can be accurately verbalized by asking the right questions. The goal is much more than wishful thinking. When carefully crafted and correctly verbalized, it becomes the focus point to create a desirable Future Reality (See Future Reality Tree). To move towards that goal, we identify a series of solutions, but these will only work if they respect the true needs of the organization. Staying on course is not just about guts and determination, it’s about understanding profoundly what drives people at their deepest level, and respecting those unique needs. The longevity of an organization depends upon it.
Try it out
Ask yourself a soul searching question. What do you fear, and what do you desire? This will help you uncover the fundamental needs that drive you, and help you set a goal you can actually achieve.
For further discussion of systemic thinking for systemic action and relevant tools, see Angela Montgomery’s new business novel+website, ‘The Human Constraint’. Two free chapters available for download.