Fixing Workplace Communication, Chapter 05, Part 01

So, I am writing a book with what some would say is an unrealistic goal: fixing workplace communication. With such a goal in mind, I believe ongoing feedback must be an essential part of the writing process. So, I decided to share my work as it evolves. 

This issue of Generative Communication includes the first part of Chapter 05. I am excited to receive your feedback, ideas, questions, and insights. Please share them here.

05: Mission: Your Destination 

“The lighthouse stands on the edge of the known and the unknown, casting its beacon of light into the darkness.” — Jonathan Lockwood Huie

We have defined a new type of communication: Generative Communication. Its first and perhaps most important attribute is being meaningful. Generative Communication should always be value-oriented. In fact, it should bring more value than it costs. The primary problem in how we typically communicate today is that with the significant overhead of contemporary communication comes little and sometimes no value. Communication is no different from any other professional task we perform. Anything we do at work should have a positive Return On Investment. But how can we ensure that what we do has value? How can we evaluate the meaningfulness of our workplace interactions? How can we fine-tune how we communicate to have an even greater value? The key to all these questions lies in defining our mission: the destination we are heading to. 

No matter where you work or what your profession is, providing value is defined as moving closer to a predefined goal. Everything we do at work should be designed for that. The mission is not defined per task or activity — it is an overarching goal that no single action can fully realize. Therefore, it is not always easy to qualify the value of a single activity, but we can certainly evaluate (or challenge) each activity against the predefined mission by asking: can it take us one step closer to our destination?

Workplace communication is the aggregation of numerous interactions. Each of them could and should be challenged, like any other professional activity, to ensure it can promote our predefined mission. Or, if we wish to be proactive about it, we must design each interaction such that it takes us one step closer to our destination. In that sense, our mission is our lighthouse. A well-defined mission will never explicitly define every step of the way. No mission statement will sketch the exact path we need to follow. Like a lighthouse, our mission guides us toward the goal we wish to achieve by letting us know we are in the right direction. Every so often, we will have to make detours or even backtrack. But whatever we do, we must keep our eyes on the lighthouse and ensure that the step we are about to take will help us reach our desired destination. 

When we define clearly and explicitly what we aim to achieve, it helps us fine-tune every bit of our interactions. Imagine going into a meeting with some pieces of data, information, and insights. Imagine the meeting even has a predefined desired outcome, but no one explicitly articulates the overarching mission you and your associates are trying to achieve. Can such a meeting be effective? Even if the discussion is perfectly managed and results in an operative action, will that action take you closer to your destination? How can you ensure that without explicitly defining the mission? Now, imagine that the meeting involves colleagues from different teams. Maybe each of them has a different mission in mind. Nothing that follows will be effective if you fail to discuss this potentially deep, inherent gap. There will always be some hidden layer — some subtext — which doesn’t get discussed but affects the entire discussion. 

Meaningful, value-oriented communication can only take place in the context of a predefined, overarching mission. When a professional interaction is detached from any predefined goal, it is broken by definition. Not every word we exchange with our colleagues is mission-oriented. Ideally, we have quite a few social, informal interactions with colleagues at work. But when we enter a meeting or send an email without knowing the mission it serves, we directly contribute to the notion of frustrating, futile communication. Therefore, the first and most essential question we should answer before we begin communicating — before we engage in any formal interaction — is, “What is our Mission?” Once you have an answer, don’t hide it. State it explicitly, even if it results in a conflict. An explicit debate (or negotiation) about our mission is far more effective than trying to promote a hidden agenda. In the best scenario, stating the mission will help you and your associates align. Alternatively, it will trigger a discussion ending with finding common ground. Either way, the starting point of the subsequent interaction will be significantly better. As we will see in the upcoming chapters, once we clearly express our Mission, what everyone shares and how they articulate it becomes dramatically more effective. The Mission becomes part of the lens that governs the entire interaction. 

Finding “the Right” Mission 

So, will a mission statement like Google’s “to organize the world’s information” be effective for everyday communication? Can something along the lines of Tesla’s mission “to build a world powered by solar energy” help us setup an effective meeting? 

It is easy to confuse the mission we need for effective communication with a much grander, more generalized, and, in our context, not particularly useful organizational mission. Every organization should have a mission statement; when it is well-defined, everything you do should eventually connect to it and help the organization realize it. At the same time, the organizational mission statement is often very abstract and high-level. After all, we don’t change it monthly or even annually. The corporate mission statement also provides orientation but for very long distances. You can think of it as a North Star rather than a lighthouse. As such, it is less helpful in refining a concrete activity like an upcoming meeting or a written report in the context of a specific project. Either it is so high-level that everything that comes to mind can be somehow connected to it, or it is phrased so abstractly that you can rarely convince yourself and others that the concrete issue at stake can really help the organization move closer to that long-term destination.

Another common mistake is confusing the mission with what we expect to achieve in the specific interaction. The essence of a single interaction is encapsulated in the Initiative component of the iAIM statement, which we will discuss in the next chapter. The Initiative is as essential as the Mission; defining both is a critical precondition for Generative Communication, but they are never the same. The Initiative will always be derived fromthe Mission; therefore, we must define the Mission before we can consider what we wish to achieve in a concrete interaction. 

Our Mission should be grander than the target of the upcoming concrete interaction. Still, it must be tangible and within reach. We are looking for a mission both our associates and we can clearly see and relate to, but one that goes beyond the target of a single meeting, message, or document we share. The Mission we are looking for should provide us with the context and guidance for deciding what to communicate and how. In many cases, this kind of mission is already defined, and we just need to identify it and make the explicit connection between it and the upcoming interaction. 

One useful source for defining our Mission is built into a method many organizations and teams use to set and track goals. It is called OKR1 (Objectives and Key-Results) and is based on a simple yet powerful idea. The core principle of OKR is that Objectives are defined for a time frame of no more than three months, and the focus of the team’s attention is on the Objectives for the current Quarter. This makes Objectives both concrete and tangible. While they obviously have to connect to a grander mission, the resolution of the Objectives allows everyone working on them to keep their eyes on a well-defined target and track their progress throughout this short period. The OKR method goes further than that and asks us to break these quarterly Objectives into a few Key Results. Key Results are measurable milestones that help the team plan and verify their progress toward the somewhat grander Objective. 

The OKR method has many benefits in managing teams, increasing engagement and motivation, and achieving more tangible goals. There are plenty of resources on defining OKRs, cascading them, and managing them across teams. In the context of our discussion, though, one important trait of OKRs can help us promote Generative Communication: Objectives and Key Results have tangible business value, but at the same time, they go beyond the scope of any single concrete task. In other words, to achieve each Key Result and each Objective, we need to perform a series of tasks and activities. For each such activity, we can ask: will it promote a predefined Objective or Key Result? When defining the proper Mission for a series of interactions, these predefined Objectives and Key Results are obvious candidates. After all, communication activities should be treated just like any other task we perform as part of our job. All we have to do is find a predefined Objective or Key Result that we wish to promote by the upcoming interaction. If we find one, we can use it as a Mission in the iAIM statement. If we don’t find any relevant OKR, the interaction we are about to trigger will probably not be value-driven. 

OKRs are perfectly balanced for our purpose. They are concrete enough to help us make better decisions in the present (for example, regarding the essence of an upcoming communication). At the same time, they allow us the flexibility to find and set the optimal path toward a future destination. They don’t dictate what actions we need to take, but they help us evaluate each activity (or each interaction) and ensure it is meaningful. This is not to say that the list of OKRs is the only valid source for meaningful Missions. But in organizations that already implement the OKR method, the list of active OKRs is the best place to start looking for an applicable one. 

For topics not covered by OKRs, or if you are not using OKRs in your organization, consider the context of the discussion: not what you are trying to achieve in that concrete interaction, but why you are trying to accomplish that. You will probably have to experiment with defining different levels of missions until you get a feel for it. Whatever effort you invest in finding and clearly defining your Mission will pay off in no time because it will guide you and your associates in the following interactions. Remember that you do not need to redefine the Mission for each instance of communication. One Mission should guide you in a series of interactions in a particular context. If the attempt to connect a specific interaction to a mission fails, it strongly indicates that this interaction will not be effective, and you should probably skip it. 

The following case study is a simple yet common example of a Mission not defined in terms of OKRs, which nevertheless provides a tangible context to evaluate and fine-tune different communication activities. 

Case Study: Leading a Project with iAIM

As we explore the components of iAIM, we will use a case study to see how iAIM is used in a real-world scenario. I chose a typical scenario you will likely know either as the person who triggers the communication or as an associate in the communication flow. 

Following the case study, you will have to roll up your sleeves and work on a real-world example from your workplace to craft a new and better way to communicate in its context. I will guide you through processing this scenario using a step-by-step guide to help you apply what we discussed in this chapter.

Nothing described in the following case study should be applied as is, though, because the iAIM statement (and communication in general) is highly context-sensitive. Use this case study as an example of thinking about the iAIM components before triggering the communication flow. Combining the case study and the guide should give you a solid starting point for implementing the ideas presented in this chapter in your work. Don’t look for quick solutions that worked before (or that work in theory) in a different context. Any professional interaction must start with a thoughtful consideration of the elements that will make it effective. 

Let’s start by imagining you are leading a project. If you have led a project in the past, think of that project. If you haven’t, chances are you have participated in a project and interacted with the Project Manager. Not all projects are alike, and not all Project Managers use the same practices or even have the same responsibilities. For this case study, let’s use the following generic description. 

The project you are leading involves several groups. The Group Managers are your primary Associates in this project — the people you directly interact with. Your project has some predefined budget, schedule, and delivery targets. These targets were set by the owner of the project. For this case study, assume the owner is your manager; as you might expect, she is also an Associate you need to communicate with. 

As the Project Manager, you are responsible for different types of communication — each with a different subset of stakeholders and a different Initiative in mind. The Mission we define should be the overarching goal that ties all these instances of communication and, of course, other activities together. The Mission is what you, as the Project Manager, should have in front of your eyes before you trigger any interaction. Considering what you are trying to achieve on behalf of the organization, you might define the following Mission:

To meet all the poroject’s predefined targets. 

If you read this statement carefully, you will notice that it is not phrased from the personal perspective of the Project Manager. Otherwise, we would have used phrasing such as: “To leadthe project to a successful completion.” The Mission we defined above is inclusive; it is phrased as the shared Mission of all the people involved in the project, including the Owner and all the Group Managers. At the same time, it is concrete and tangible. It is not the organization’s long-term mission but a much closer and more direct lighthouse to guide you and the team in the upcoming discussions. Such inclusive phrasing is not always possible, but this is what we should aspire to. The more people can relate to the Mission and see it as their own, the more effective the communication is. When the Mission you define is not perceived as a shared mission, you will have to start with finding a joint Mission (or a few Missions that can co-exist) you and all your Associates can agree on.

If you think this Mission sounds pretty straightforward, you are right; in a sense, that is its strength. It doesn’t sound like a game changer, but when you and your Associates use the Mission to decide what to share and discuss and what should be achieved next, it becomes the key to unlocking effective communication. As a project leader, you can use this simple Mission statement as a filter and a lens. Every bit of communication should be considered against it. Any instance of communication that does not promote this Mission is ineffective and should, therefore, be canceled or radically changed. Any information and insight you are about to share and discuss must be read in the context of this predefined Mission.

As we revisit this case study in the following chapters, we will use this Mission to complete and apply the iAIM statement. 


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