Strategic Narrative vs. Statements

Here is an interesting question that popped in my post-optin survey yesterday and during a podcast conversation this morning. It’s my lunch hour, so I thought I’d take on the challenge to answer part of it quickly. Please forgive the typos and holes if you see any, and sorry I didn’t have time to write a shorter email.

How do you ensure your strategic narrative is actually disseminated through your company and/or externally? How do you stop it from going the way of the values/mission statement (which is usually nowhere).

I want to answer in the reverse order, with the second part of the question first–the problem with values/mission statements. I’ll throw purpose statements in the same bucket too.

Statements could be great.

Ideally, describing your company’s mission and purpose with a short statement would be helpful. It would help everyone understand and remember why your organization exists, keep people aligned, and make your organization more agile.

But the process to create them is broken.

What’s broken is how most companies try to develop those statements. I know for a fact how broken is the typical process because I used to participate in it. I did it at large companies like Microsoft, Expedia, and smaller ones.

The leadership team locked itself in a room for a couple of half days, and after we did a few ice breakers, we started word-smithing until we almost died. Nobody else is included. We see the statement as a product that has to be perfect, and we won’t release it until it is. Not an inclusive process at all. Therefore, it’s not understood and doesn’t convey much meaning to the teams.

It is hard to create and align with a purpose statement in a one-time fierce effort such as a leadership retreat. Inevitably, this expectation leads the group involved to shoot for perfection. Even if people say they’re OK with a “good-enough” version, they’ll turn themselves into wordsmiths. This habit always makes the approach painful and delays shipping the final version. Instead, recognize that the process needs to be generative and requires fast iterations over a more extended period.

How we think of values/mission/purpose is also broken.

It’s the norm. We commonly associate those words with the image of a one or two-sentence paragraph that we should have somewhere…, but wait…. I thought I had it here… ha, maybe in that email I sent last year…. Huh… Sorry can’t find it, but I’ll follow up with you.

Starting by encapsulating something as big and powerful as values, mission, and purpose in a short sentence is almost impossible and dangerous.

A statement alone is not enough. People need to interpret it to know what to do with it every day. You need to guide people through this translation process with conversations, opportunities to tell stories in public, and the chance to create meaningful written and visual content.

Statements alone are hardly actionable.

“Do you have a mission statement?”. “Yes, see that poster on the wall?”.

In our context, the “statement” concept became popular in the 60s as part of the toolkit to make any business succeed. The goal was to codify its ideals and provide a set of principles to guide its actions and decisions.

But let’s face it, it’s hardly the case. When a mission statement rings hollow, it doesn’t help people make decisions. So your team will ignore it. Plus, they’ll distrust that the company is going anywhere meaningful as a result.

I see this all the time. Who cares about the mission or the purpose anymore during the negotiation of a contract. At that moment, it would help if we could use our purpose as a guidepost. But it’s hardly the case.

Starting with a statement is flawed. Instead, Craft your purpose statement after you’ve created your narrative. Like the title of a book or the subject line of an email, it is easier to write it once we know the details about the opportunity you are pursuing.

The wrong reason.

Too many organizations craft a purpose statement for the wrong reasons. They do it because it’s in style, or they think of purpose as a slogan that they can use for marketing purposes or to motivate employees. But on the other end, many successful and large companies don’t have a purpose statement. So it’s OK if you don’t have one either.

Don’t follow the herd. Instead, invest in creating one only if you feel it will help.

Mission, Values, Purpose live very well through rich stories, long-form content, drawings, images, music, acting, videos, and more, like your own behavior and actions. These are very potent ways to support the creation of a purpose-filled narrative for your organization.

What to do to:

1 - Recognize that a purpose is not just a statement.

2 - Only craft your statements once you feel your narrative is alive if you feel like it’s still necessary.

3 - Don’t start by coming up with a statement when you want to reframe and revive your company narrative.

4 - First, gather rich content to express your company’s impact on your community.

5 - Think of a statement as your narrative’s title, providing both a synopsis and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest.

6 – Co-create your strategic narrative. When people have their fingerprints on a strategic narrative they built together, it becomes their own.

7 - When building your strategic narrative, use people’s own words. Involve your team in crafting it so you ensure that people use it since it will be their own words.

8 - Make your strategic narrative usable, an essential piece of your critical processes, like product development or sales processes.

9 – Shrink your brag zone in your strategic narrative. Statements are a self-centered view of a company. A strategic narrative includes everyone. EVERYONE (you, your team, customers, partners, investors, competitors). Building a company is like going on first dates every day. If you spend your time telling everyone about yourself, you will make the dates boring and sound desperate.

10 – Say things humanly, without bullshit. Your words matter. They mobilize people. They sell your ideas and your products too. The good ones are painful to find but powerful to own.

I have more to say, but I thought this might do it for now.

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