Over the years, I’ve noticed that clients who invest the time and effort in proactively defining and aligning their organization’s story are often the ones that make better decisions and drive better results. I want to share what I mean by “story” and also provide a simple template that organizations can use as a checklist to identify and fill gaps in their stories.
The organization’s story can be explained by the layers of questions that’s required to tell it well. It starts with the big one:
We can break this down into a few smaller questions:
When you take a step back, you’ll notice that these questions break down into three pillars: Mission, Values, and Vision. So is the organization’s story as simple as defining these three pillars? If only it was that simple!
The following sets of questions will help unpack each of these pillars, generating the data and narrative elements to synthesize a custom-tailored story for your organization. One important thing to note is that the story that emerges will largely be a product of the people involved, so be sure to include an appropriate number and range of perspectives that will help answer these questions.
The value of crafting a mission statement is not necessarily the end result, which is often (especially for outsiders) a vague and overly simplified sentence like “we empower learning”, but the questions an organization must answer about itself in order to land on the statement. When telling the organization’s story, the answers to these questions will clearly articulate the organization’s driving force and its raison d’être.
Here are questions for unpacking and building your organization’s mission:
At Barrel, we go deep into understanding our client’s business model, customers, and competitors before we begin an engagement. The questions above touch upon some of the things we try to learn during the process. Listed below are three frameworks that we employ to go even deeper. I think any organization can benefit from internally engaging in exercises using these frameworks.
The Mission that your organization ultimately adopts as part of the story is one that will be backed by confident knowledge of what you do, who you serve, and how you stand out and compete. The encapsulating mission statement should, to those who believe in and understand the mission, describe the footprint the organization has on the world.
Think about the things your organization considers when making big and tough decisions. These may have to do with hiring and firing employees, dealing with unhappy customers, deciding whether or not to enter into an impactful partnership with another organization, or making significant changes to your organization’s products or services.
It’s during these situations when your organization’s true values emerge. If the Mission defines the “what” of your story, then the Values define the “how” – how will you go about doing what you set out to do?
While stressful, high stakes situations may reveal an organization’s true values, its values are developed in smaller micro-decisions that are made day after day. These are the behaviors exhibited by the leadership team and the employees. They are also in the nature of interactions with customers and vendors. Slapping an aspirational word like “integrity” or “teamwork” and calling them the organization’s “core values” won’t mean much if the daily behaviors don’t back them up.
The following are questions to help you generate ideas for your organization’s Values. To answer these, first imagine that your organization is firing on all cylinders and everything is going as well as it possible can. Then, ask yourself:
Defining an organization’s values is not a simple “fill in the blank” exercise. It requires much reflection, many conversations with team members, and a collaborative process to synthesize and roll out to the organization.
Various leadership books offer exercises and frameworks to tackle this. I personally like the one in Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman, where you start by listing out the three members of your team that you would love to clone and writing down their exemplifying qualities. You then use that as a starting point to narrow in on the behaviors that can be codified into the organization’s Core Values.
In case you’re curious, Barrel’s Core Values are the following:
These may not mean much to outsiders, but internally, we bring these up at every new employee on-boarding, at every monthly team meeting, one-on-one performance reviews, and in various team communications. Under each are bullets of behaviors that are expected from everyone who works at Barrel.
To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.
Stephen R. Covey wrote the above when talking about his Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind in the classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For organizations, the same principle applies–knowing your destination will help bring clarity and direction to the steps you need to take.
There are many approaches one can take to formulate a vision for the organization. In fact, here are a few that I’ve come across over the years that may serve as good frameworks:
At Barrel, we use the Vision/Traction Organizer, and it’s been a helpful tool for making us deliberate and think hard about the short, medium, and long-term destinations. It’s a document that the leadership team revisits each quarter and reassesses annually.
Below are questions to help you think about your Vision and how it fits into your organization’s story. First, imagine your company 5 years into the future and then ask yourself these questions:
For some organizations, the Vision for 5 years may mean that the company no longer exists due to some kind of strategic move (acquisition, wind down, etc.). Either way, the goal of establishing a Vision is to put a stake on what is an uncertain and unpredictable future. With a Vision in place, the story now has an ending (or at least the end of a chapter) it can work towards.
As you can see, telling a good story requires a great deal of work. The template of Mission-Values-Vision may be simple, but articulating each pillar in a clear manner and in a way that resonates with your entire team requires a thorough understanding of the organization’s inner workings and its people. The quality of the story improves as your understanding grows deeper and more nuanced.
If you’ve done variations of this exercise within your organization many times and can answer all the questions with ease, your story should be in solid shape. If you find any of these questions difficult to answer or realize that they’ve never come up within your organization before, it’s never too late to initiate some workshops to define your Mission, Values, and Vision.
A solid story will go a long way in shaping the organization’s brand, the public’s perception of what the organization stands for and emotions it evokes, and the story will serve as a foundation for formulating strategy, the approach you take and the plans you adopt to realize your Vision.
To recap, below is the template along with the questions.
Imagine that your company is firing on all cylinders. Ask yourself these questions:
Imagine your company 5 years into the future and then ask yourself these questions:
We help our clients think through their organization’s story and a number of different ways. Learn more about Barrel and the work we do for growing brands.