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4 lessons for running a mission or values project openly

photo by Samuel ZellerPicture this: You’re sitting in Yet Another Quarterly Global Company Meeting, listening to the executive team prattle on about its most recent Important Global Initiatives. Next topic on the agenda, says the CEO, is our new company mission.

“The executive team got together at the recent board retreat, and after a long discussion, we’ve finalized a new company mission,” he says. A slide pops up on the screen behind him, and the new mission appears in a bold and important-looking typeface.

As he begins his explanation, at this point you will likely have one of the following reactions:

  1. Wow, these executives are geniuses! What an inspiring statement. I’m so lucky to have an opportunity to work at a company with such bold leadership vision.
  2. Hmm…Sounds OK, and I’m sure it is meaningful to the executives. Do I have to memorize this?
  3. What a bunch of crap.
  4. What time does this meeting end? Where should we go to lunch today?

In your organization how would most people react? If you believe most people would react with 2, 3, or 4, your organization is a great candidate to run a mission or values-development project openly.

Let’s face it. Developing an organizational mission or set of values that are truly inspirational and unique is a tough challenge. Mission statements have a bit of a bad rap out there in the world. Many people view them skeptically, often with good reason. There are a lot of mission statements that aren’t inspiring, aren’t differentiated, or have no basis in organizational reality. They are many sets of corporate values drawn up from a list of usual suspects (innovation, service excellence, integrity, teamwork, blah, blah, blah) that inspire no one.

I was once a skeptic as well. Almost 15 years ago, someone at Red Hat asked me to be part of a team tasked with figuring out the company values. When I first heard about the project, my view of corporate values was that they were glorified Successories posters that you’d put on the walls outside the bathrooms to be ignored by everyone.

But after reading the book Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, I came away inspired that when done right, mission and values creation projects could be really meaningful and impactful. Our team went on to develop a set of four company values that are still closely held within Red Hat today.

Bring People Into the ProcessRed Hat has continued to hone its inclusive approach to internal strategic projects like these over the years. Another notable project was the effort to articulate the Red Hat mission with the help of the Red Hat employee community. CEO Jim Whitehurst wrote about this process in his book The Open Organization and also online for both the Harvard Business Journal and Management Innovation eXchange.

And at New Kind, we’ve continued to help organizations inside and outside the technology industry use an open process on strategic projects like developing company mission and values. We believe that when you bring people into the process, authentically soliciting their ideas, they are much more likely to embrace the final result. By taking strategic projects like these out of the executive retreat and into the employee community, you can empower people, build relationships, and achieve a better final product—all at the same time.

So how could you open up the process of defining or redefining the mission or values for your organization? Here are a few lessons we’ve learned:

Lesson 1: clearly define the ask and the role up front

The best way to get people to productively engage is by respecting their time and effort. Make a clear, concise ask, and be transparent about the role people will have in the final decision. For example, “We are working on revising the company mission, so please share your ideas for what the new mission should be,” is a terrible ask and will receive worthless input. It is important to be specific, about both the tasks and the process.

Here’s an example of a much stronger ask for a values-creation project:

“We have recently begun a project to articulate our company values. Over the next few months, we plan to involve people from all across the company in this process, so that we can ensure the values we select are representative of our company as a whole.

Today, we are taking the first step. We’d like you to share three to five specific words that you believe capture the essence of what makes our culture different. Choose words that describe us when we are at our best, doing work that makes us shine. Or consider sharing aspirational values that might help us achieve our goals for the future. Feel free to include a few additional thoughts to explain why you chose particular words, or share examples that illustrate the concept in action in our work. Please submit your responses by March 1.

Once we’ve collected input from across the company, the working team will synthesize the best ideas into a draft values platform. We’ll plan to share this draft with the company to give you an opportunity to make some further suggestions and comments around the middle of May. We’ll incorporate the best suggestions and present the final values platform to the company at our quarterly meeting on June 30.”

So, that is a bit longer, yes. But also has a much more specific, manageable ask: three to five words, plus a few surrounding thoughts for the first phase. It is clear about how we are going to use the ideas: as inspiration for the draft values platform that the working team will be developing. Finally, there are set deadlines and a clearly-defined input schedule. Which brings us to our second lesson.

Lesson 2: clarify how you’ll use input and when you’ll want it

Open mission and values-development projects can quickly go wrong when they don’t specify either the points at which people will have an opportunity to weigh in or what their role in the final decision will be.

In the example above, we identified two places where the company would be asked for input:

  1. Initial Ideation: an open call for people to share the three to five words they think are possible candidates for the company values
  2. Final Review: an opportunity for people to provide input on the values platform the working team has developed

Notice that we didn’t say the working team would choose eight values and we’d put these values out to the entire company to vote on their favorite four (please don’t do this). We made it clear that the company would be involved in two parts of the process, initial ideation and final review.

But we also made it clear that the company wouldn’t be making the final choices together as a democracy where everyone gets to vote. The company as a whole is playing an input role, not a decision-maker role. The values working team will make the final decision.

Our experience running projects like these over many years is that most people don’t want or need the opportunity to make every decision themselves. They just want to be asked for their thoughts, they want to understand how their input will be used, and they want to know the final decision will be made by people they trust. And that brings us to Lesson 3.

Lesson 3: select the meritocracy well, and make it transparent

While you probably don’t want the entire company involved in the final decision, you do want to have a very clear decision-making group. For a mission and values project, we’d recommend the group of people synthesizing the input from the company should not be the executive team by default.

Instead, choose people from within the company that have shown—through their work—leadership and passion. These demonstrate that they’ll make smart recommendations and understand where the company is going.

In other words, create a meritocracy of people whose recommendations others in the organization can trust. And consider creating a page where you share the bios and work of the people on the decision-making team, so anyone who is interested can see who was involved.

Your corporate culture might dictate that the final decision on the values or mission will be made by the executive team (as was the case at Red Hat). But the “meritocracy” group can make the recommendation to be blessed by the executives or sent back for further examination.

Lesson 4: show the source code that led to the final result

One final lesson: When sharing the proposed set of values or mission with the company, make sure to also “show the code” for how you arrived at the result. Don’t just show the words on the screen and expect them to stand on their own.

In almost every project we’ve worked on, there have been “a-ha” moments along the way, where someone internally shared an idea that was truly insightful, or changed the path of the conversation. Share them. Tell stories of the most interesting revelations, the moments when everything became clearer.

Open Mission and ValuesMake sure to credit the people who pushed the conversation forward, especially if they were not part of the core project team. The more people can see that ideas of others like them were part of the final product, the more it will be clear that the result was of the community, not above the community.

By following these four lessons, you’ll be better prepared to run your mission or values-creation project in an open way. You’ll engage people more authentically. You’ll get richer, more insightful input. And it’ll be easier for people to embrace the final result because they were a part of creating it.

But this is only a basic primer. You can certainly go much deeper in understanding how to successfully run a project openly. For more information and inspiration, check out Red Hat’s recently released Open Decision Framework, which has all sorts of great tips that you can apply as you design your mission or values creation project.

Also, consider reading Beth Anderson’s “An Open Process for Discovering Your Core Values,” which explains Beth’s journey to implement an open values process in her organization.

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