Years ago a friend named Pete offered me some unsolicited advice about dating. He said “John, sooner or later every woman is going to ask you the question: ‘What’s our deal?’ At that moment, unless you’re ready to tie the knot, that relationship will be over.” Now Pete was a smooth operator (perhaps not as smooth as he thought), and a real gift to the ladies (he certainly thought so) – but really, he was right. All of us – both women and men – want to know the deal – what the game is, where we’re headed, how we’ll get there. It’s important stuff for individuals and for organizations, and too many firms do a poor job of building, telling, and selling their story.
Of course organizations are even more challenging, because there are multiple people involved. Consensus and alignment is difficult. Some are quite concerned with ‘What’s our deal?’ questions, while others aren’t so much. Some see the path clearly, others are confused, and still others feel completely shut out. Some want a high level of information or reassurance – some just want to be left alone with open runway. Organization complexity leads often to confusion, frustration, and even anger. This also commonly results in tremendous waste, ineffectiveness, and lost opportunity. It’s disappointing, because answering the ‘What’s our deal?’ questions involves a finite set of questions, straightforward process of discovery, and defined deliverables. For any organization, the three main components of this overarching framework are:
Mission – The answer to the question “why?” People want to work in an organization with a worthy and meaningful purpose. Yes, all corporations have a similar general mission – to serve customers, employ staff, and make a profit – but few are excited about these standard drivers. Great organizations really understand this, and promote their distinctive mission constantly to energize staff and the marketplace.
Vision – An answer to the question “where?” Similar to mission, a compelling and challenging vision motivates staff and stakeholders to take on the challenges, make better decisions, and do the hard work. Vision paints a picture of the aspirational future of the firm, providing all with an objective to shoot for, and a context in which to focus opportunities and choices. Who wants to work for a company that has no vision, no sense of where it’s headed? The business plan will outline the how, what, and when of the journey, but it’s the destination that propels the organization forward.
Strategy – The answer to the questions of “how?” Organizations employ strategies in different contexts and scales – from finite operational strategies for smaller issues (a pursuit strategy for a project), to larger, functional scale (marketing strategies to grow the firm). Companies also employ enterprise level strategies – those that define the distinction and competitive advantage of the organization itself. Too many firms have a watered down, plain-vanilla, and ‘just-like-everyone-else’ enterprise business strategy. In the Fast Future ahead, this ‘me too’ approach will be very risky – and much less effective.
[Some will argue that an organization’s core values are also an important part of this business framework. I’m okay with that. Core values are certainly central to the organization’s identity, and as such inform the mission, vision, and enterprise strategy. Exploration and discovery of these core values is therefore warranted as well].
So, if asking and answering these ‘What’s our deal?’ questions is so important, then why don’t more organizations do it, and do it well?
The simple answer is – because it’s hard. The questions, process, and deliverables are not particularly complex or mysterious, but the discussions, debates, and constant and ongoing communication necessary require considerable effort. This work needs the input and consensus of others – rarely easy in the professional firm. It also requires making difficult choices, between competing but attractive choices, and usually with incomplete information and uncertain assumptions. And of course while the work seems important, it rarely looks urgent – at least in the very short-term. So it’s easy to postpone, to justify inaction for another day, when more information, time, and focus might lead to better outcomes.
This thinking is wrong – and astoundingly risky. A Fast Future world of continued uncertainty, near constant volatility, and an ever accelerating pace of change and evolution in business – is already here. Only those firms with a strong sense of identity: who we are and what we stand for, our core values and purpose, our desired vision and direction, and key components of our strategic thrust and competitive advantage – will survive and thrive on the road ahead. These framework components are not “nice to have” MBA concepts – they’re absolutely critical to sustainable organization success.
And so, a simple question for you and your firm: “What’s your deal?”