By Kathleen M. Hosfeld, President
Three questions can help organizations connect their strategies and brands to The Great Story, the important work of our time. I first realized the value of the “great story” more than a decade ago, in listening to my retired father and a colleague reminisce about their days in the aluminum industry. At a dinner together I heard the two former executives wax nostalgic.
“It’s not the same as when we were there, Bob,” his friend Clay said. “All these young guys care about is their careers. You and I, what we cared about was aluminum.”
The reverence with which he said the word aluminum went beyond the value of excellence, beyond the pride of creating quality. Mass production of aluminum changed everything – from airplanes (once made of wood and fabric), to rail cars, to building construction materials, to medical tools, to food storage. Aluminum was the metal that would carry us to the moon.
The power of aluminum to create a better world was the kind of purpose that called for service beyond self-interest. It was clear in the way Clay said the word aluminum that to him it meant a brighter future for his children and grandchildren. That future was worth his dedication and creativity.
Whether we work in a for-profit or a non-profit, for government or private enterprise, the larger story of our work makes it worth the best we have to give.
The Three Questions
In strategy work with clients, I’ve found that defining the organization’s purpose around something compelling to people both inside and outside the organization depends on answering three questions:
- What is the change we want to see in the world because of our work (shared vision)?
- What are the means we will use to create this change (shared means)?
- How do we want to be together as we do this work (shared values)?
Seeing the Change
When we ask the question, “What is the change we want to see in the world because of our work?” we assume that we have a degree (if small) of influence over a vast system. The question implies we’re looking for a point of leverage in the system. Another way to ask the question is “Why make a change at all? What is the need?” Sometimes, we already know the change we want to create in the world – more home ownership, greater fuel efficiency, healthier kids, engaged citizens. We can look around us and see that others care about this same change because they too are working in their own way to address this need. This gives us a sense of who our partners, collaborators or competitors might be. Most of us are unaccustomed to thinking about our work in terms of our impact on the world. Some entrepreneurs respond to this question by realizing they’ve lost track of their original goals for their business.
Creating the Change
The next question, “What are the means we will use to create this change” defines the day-to-day tasks and methods you use to achieve your goal. A technology support division of a local city government might have a goal to become an essential resource to the entire city system. But there might be many roads to get to this shared destination. Is it through superior help-desk solutions? Is it through catalyzing technology upgrades? Defining shared means is an agreement about strategy. Clarifying “shared means” results in focus, and thus creates greater return on investment of learning and capital. It often requires sifting through what others (competitors or collaborators) are already doing, what your organization does best or most successfully. It also means listening to what customers or other constituents validate as meaningful. This validation can be purchases and customer loyalty in a for-profit venture. In a non-profit it can be expressed through grants and donations that support the work.
Being The Change
How we create the change is very often influenced by asking “How do we want to be together as we do this work?” This speaks to something very different than the values statements senior managers post on bulletin boards for everyone’s compliance. This question gets at the underlying values that reflect how we want to be treated or how we (the people) agree to treat each other in the workplace even when there’s no external reward. Creating alignment between the goals and organizational culture creates integrity; it says “we walk our talk.” For many employees, agreements about how we want to be together can be as important as the change we want to see in the world. Positive social networks, being a valued member of a productive team, and the ability to take pride in their work create meaning for many employees that brings out their best contribution. These agreements can create stability at times when the larger strategic vision is shifting.
Answering these three questions benefits an organization in several ways. It:
- Creates efficiency through clear focus and alignment resulting in faster progress and fewer wasted resources;
- Articulates a compelling foundation for brands and other marketing messages;
- Fosters productive social connections among employees who then share the same goals; and
- Establishes a positive purpose for the organization in the context of a larger, dynamic system.
These questions and their answers lead us back to that place of the great story of our work. We’re not just telling a good story about our company and work as many corporate storytellers do. Rather we are seeing the Great Story of our time, finding our place in a story that is bigger than us, bigger than the place we work, and committing ourselves to work that is worthy of our passion and service. This is living a great story.
(This article was originally published in March of 2005. My father, Bob Hosfeld, an Alcoa executive, contributed significantly to the original version. Its continued publication is dedicated to his memory and his legacy as a “spiritual advisor” to his colleagues.)