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 is the second part of Chapter 05 of the book. I am excited to receive your feedback, ideas, questions, and insights. Please share them here.
05: Mission: Your Destination
Now that we understand the importance of defining a Mission before communicating, I would like to walk you through a real-world scenario that you will choose. I’ve broken down defining a Mission into a few steps or practices that will guide you in setting up the stage for any communication flow and improving its effectiveness.
Pick an activity you are responsible for that requires communicating with colleagues, peers, your team, or your managers. Preferably, use an activity you are currently working on so you can apply this exercise and improve your communication immediately.
It may be that whatever activity you choose already has a well-defined Mission that you and your Associates use, even if not explicitly. If such a Mission is already defined (in the form of OKR or any other form), use it after reviewing the following practices to optimize it as needed.
If you don’t have a well-defined Mission statement that provides context, now is the perfect opportunity to define one. Having a clear, tangible Mission as part of any activity you and your team perform is an essential practice that will serve you far beyond the context of fixing workplace communication.
DEFINE AN OVERARCHING, TANGIBLE MISSION
The first step in defining the Mission is to make sure it goes beyond the scope of a single concrete interaction. The Mission we define will help us ensure that the goal of the specific interaction — the Initiative we will define next — has value in a broader context. The combination of the Initiative and the Mission will be our primary tool in managing the discussion and refining its content.
At the same time, the Mission we define must be tangible. We have to be able to see its results in the near future. We must be able to verify we are moving toward it with each interaction we make. Often, we cling to an overly abstract mission or a target that might take a very long time to achieve. If we wish to use the Mission to ensure meaningful communication, we must find a more concrete and immediate lighthouse to guide us.
Once again, if you are using OKRs already, chances are you will find the perfect relevant Mission already defined in your active Objectives and Key Results. Similarly, if you consider communication in the context of a well-defined project, it is likely that the project’s goals (or a subset of them) qualify as an overarching and tangible Mission. In other cases, I propose asking yourself why the upcoming interaction is essential. If the answer is limited to the concrete discussion, try looking beyond the immediate goal and see if you can identify the overarching mission.
Let’s say you are an HR Manager and are considering initiating a meeting to discuss the attrition levels in your organization. This by itself is not a Mission or an Initiative, as we will soon see. But when you consider the reason for having such a discussion, you might come up with an answer such as “to reduce the attrition level.” This can certainly be a valid Mission. No single meeting will achieve that goal, but you can use it to verify that any upcoming interaction will take you one step closer to this destination. It’s a tangible goal everyone can understand and relate to when they plan what and how to communicate.
If you are a sales manager and wish to discuss the funnels’ status with your team, you must define an overarching mission to provide the context and guidance for such a discussion. A Mission such as “to meet the quarterly Sales Targets” will do just fine, but of course, you can aim higher and define the Mission as “to increase sales by 10% compared to the previous quarter.” No single meeting, email, or document you share will be the silver bullet that will immediately make this Mission a reality. But you and your team must be sure that any communication in the context of this Mission can help you get there, even if only by one small step.
While these last two examples can easily be measured, when I say the Mission should be tangible, I don’t mean that it should be necessarily measurable (or easy to quantify). We were all taught that targets should be measurable and that anything not measurable cannot be managed. I beg to differ, but I will not get into the broader argument as it is beyond the scope of this book. I will say, though, that the Mission we are looking for in the context of effective communication should serve as a lighthouse. A lighthouse is not a GPS. It is also not an indication that we arrived safely at our destination. A lighthouse gives us a sense of direction, which is precisely what the Mission should do for our interactions.
If your Mission as an HR Manager, for example, is to recruit the best people, it can provide you with a good sense of direction in creating the setup for effective discussions. Is it measurable? Not really. But at any point, you can ask yourself, “Is the Initiative of this upcoming meeting likely to take us one step closer to recruiting the best people?”. As such, it is an overarching and tangible Mission. As we will soon see, this by itself is not enough, though.
MAKE YOUR MISSION CLEAR
One of the core problems in communication is that we naturally share things as we think of them; we use our logic, our experience, our vocabulary, and our assumptions, believing our partners in the conversation will surely understand them the way we do. This problem goes so deep that it can affect every word, every sentence, and every piece of data we share with others, but it starts with the most basic thing we need to communicate: our Mission.
To be useful, our Mission must be concise and simple enough to fit into the iAIM Statement. But that is hardly enough. Since it is the basis for any following interaction, it should also be CLEAR. We will discuss the concept of CLEAR content in length in part 3 of this book, but since it is relevant to defining both the Mission and the Initiative, we’ll introduce it here.
CLEAR stands for Coherent and Complete, (creates) Leverage, Evolving, Accessible, and Resonates. The ideal Mission has all six attributes on top of being concise. Let’s explore each of them briefly.
When the Mission we define is Coherentall the people involved in the communication flow understand it in the same way. Ambiguity is a significant contributor to ineffective communication and often frustration, and while we probably can’t eliminate it, we should actively try to minimize it as much as possible.
Take the Mission “to recruit the best people,” for example. When I read it, it is undoubtedly tangible: I can see these people I wish to recruit in my imagination and use this mental model in any upcoming interaction. I can ask myself and the team, are we moving toward this goal? The problem is that my colleagues might have a completely different interpretation of what makes a potential employee “the best” for our organization. Having these different interpretations is not by itself bad. On the contrary, it might lead to a more interesting discussion and, eventually, better results. But if these different interpretations are implicit and not confronted, they might create a lot of misalignments when we discuss the issue at stake.
To make this mission coherent, we must define what “best” means in this context. If we don’t have a definition we can agree on, we should probably have a preliminary discussion to come up with one. Without it, we won’t be able to use the Mission as a lighthouse.
Coherency is not the same as detailed. Remember that the Mission should not define every step of the way but just the destination. The path toward our destination should remain open for various options and interpretations. At the same time, we must ensure everyone is aligned on where we are heading. This is not a one-time question to ask. At this point, we might still not know who our Associates are, and in some cases, the list of Associates varies depending on the Initiative. Defining the Mission and the other components of iAIM is an iterative activity we must attend to throughout our communication.
A Mission enabling effective communication is also Complete: it captures what we aim to achieve and not just part of it.
Consider the Mission we have defined on behalf of the Project Manager: “To meet the project’s predefined targets.” When discussing a specific aspect of the project, for example, the risks, it is tempting to use a more concrete mission such as “to reduce the risk level of the project.” But while this Mission seems more helpful for that particular discussion, it creates some significant blind spots; reducing the risk level might come at the expense of other predefined targets. Keeping the actual, complete goal in mind might make the conversation about the risks more challenging, but it will be more effective because it will not deviate from what we are trying to achieve.
When we define the Initiative in the next chapter, we will see just how the goal of a concrete interaction fits in the grander Mission so we can keep our eyes on both in parallel.
When you verify your Mission is complete, don’t be tempted to add too many details; we still aim for concise phrasing. Using a shorthand phrasing such as “its predefined targets” is a perfect alternative to listing the targets in the Mission, assuming they are written and accessible to the team.
To be effective, the Mission we define must create Leverage. Simply put, the Mission should help us fine-tune every aspect of communication.
For example, the mission “to increase sales by 10%” might be a good Mission when your Associates are all part of the Sales team. But does it create leverage when you are a Project Manager in R&D? Can it help you verify you and the team are on the right path toward the destination when you discuss what has to be done next? The distance between what the R&D team has to do today and the increased sales potential is too big. No one working on the project can use this Mission to decide what to share in an upcoming discussion or include in the following email.
A Mission that creates leverage is not just tangible — it is a target you and your Associates can work towards and affect directly. Otherwise, it is just an empty statement no one can relate to and promote. Leverage in this context means helping us understand if the interaction is really needed and how to design it for maximum impact.
The next trait of an effective Mission is that it encapsulates an Evolution: it describes a state we wish to be in compared to where we are today.
Our minds are drawn to dynamics. We communicate to achieve some things. Combining these two facts should result in a mission phrased using a verb that creates movement from our current reality to our destination.
As our Mission is the first foundation of communicating with others, it should be Accessible to others — to the people we communicate with. It must be phrased in terms our Associates understand and can relate to. We should use a vocabulary we all understand and know how to use in a discussion.
One of the most common mistakes we make is to assume people know what we know and understand things the way we do. We tend to forget that we often communicate with people from different backgrounds, even when working on the same project or pursuing the same goal. This is not just a fact of life — this diversity is essential for co-creation. But it means we must be aware of it and bridge potential gaps in how we think about and communicate information and ideas.
The language you use when you define the Mission needn’t be overly simplified or generic; it does have to be well-understood by all the people you communicate with.
Last but not least, a good Mission Resonates with our partners in the conversation. They don’t just understand it — they accept it as their own. They realize the importance the Mission has to them. They care about it.
This might be the trickiest part in defining the Mission (and, as we will later see, in crafting the body of what we communicate). But when the Mission resonates with our Associates, every discussion becomes as focused as a laser. We still have to solve things, come up with ideas, and agree on how to operate, and this is exactly what our creative energy should be invested in. We are not wasting any bit of energy on arguing where we aim to be at the end of the road.
I won’t lie: defining a Mission that resonates with all of your Associates is not always possible. But when you manage to define such a Mission, you will be at a great starting point for any discussion.
When you think of your Mission in terms of the CLEAR attributes, there’s a greater chance it will help you and your Associates establish meaningful communication and, eventually, move closer to your joint goal. Remember, though, that we communicate not to convince and have it our way but to co-create. Merely having a tangible overarching Mission phrased with the CLEAR attributes in mind is essential but insufficient. We have to ensure our Associates don’t have other Missions in mind or, if they do, how to integrate them.
It is not rare that different people in the same organization have different Missions, even when they join forces and work together on a particular project or task. When these different Missions are hidden and not openly discussed, the outcome is almost always ineffective communication. Different agendas are natural; hidden agendas are disastrous.
Consider a Customer Support manager in the midst of handling an event affecting some major customer. At some point, she might need the help of the R&D team in researching the problem and potentially issuing a fix. When setting a meeting to discuss this issue with R&D leads, the Customer Support Manager’s Mission is likely to be something along the lines of “to meet our Service Level Agreement (SLA) targets” or “to have zero negative impact on the customer’s operation.” These are valid missions, but typically, they are different from the mission the R&D team has in mind. The R&D team, whose help is required, probably has a Mission similar to the one we already mentioned: “to meet the project’s predefined targets.”
As long as these two missions do not conflict and the R&D team can help Customer Support promote their mission with little or no impact on the active project, everything is fine. The problem starts when resources are scarce, and conflict is inevitable: any time we spend on investigating the problem the customer experiences comes at the expense of meeting the project’s targets.
Needless to say, this is not strictly a communication problem. The problem is that when this conflict of missions is implicit, it negatively affects any cross-team interaction, making the problem even more severe due to the time wasted on ineffective discussions.
One obvious solution would be to set clear priorities between the two (or more) conflicting missions. But even without a formal priority call, the mere acknowledgment of having these two valid missions can help the team make the discussion more productive. There is even a chance the team will devise a solution that promotes the two allegedly conflicting goals. None of that is possible if the missions are not explicitly and clearly articulated. Aligning the missions before the discussion on the actual issue starts is a giant step forward that will likely enable better results.
Start by asking your Associates what their missions are, writing them down alongside the mission you have defined. If there is a potential conflict between them, kick off a preliminary discussion to resolve it. You don’t have to remain with only one mission at the end of the discussion, but you should make sure the different missions can co-exist. When the various missions do not point in the same direction, discuss the tradeoffs explicitly and aim for a decision. In cases of deep conflict between missions, you might have to bring Associates at higher levels to this preliminary discussion so they will set clear priorities.
As said earlier, this is much more than a communication challenge. When different teams have conflicting goals and targets, the potential for friction and frustration is high. It is much more effective to align goals and targets across teams and disciplines before an urgent need that requires an immediate discussion emerges.
COMMUNICATE THE MISSION
The Mission we define is meant to serve as a lighthouse. To serve its purpose, a lighthouse must be visible. After we have a well-defined Mission, we must communicate it and ensure it is in front of everyone’s eyes during the entire communication flow.
It is not enough to articulate the Mission orally and to hope everyone remembers it. Coming up with a practical, meaningful Mission is an investment, and if we wish to make the most of it, we must be able to see it and refer to the Mission throughout the interaction. Whether it is an email, a meeting, or any other form of communication, ensure the Mission is at the top and constantly visible. It might sound like a technicality, but this will help everyone focus on where we are going and refine every step of the way as needed.
As we will see later when we discuss specific communication flows, part of the flow’s design includes the mechanism to share and address the Mission and the Initiative throughout the interaction.
CREATE A HIERARCHY OF MISSIONS (OPTIONAL)
There will be cases where a Mission you define makes perfect sense for some concrete discussions but is of little use in other discussions, all within the context of the same project or goal. If the Mission you define aims for the longer term and is being used for strategic discussions, it might be less helpful as a lighthouse for lower-level discussions in the same context.
As the distance between the definition of the Initiative (that will follow) and the definition of the Mission grows, we might need to break down the higher-level Mission into smaller, more tangible ones. Take, for example, the Sales Team Mission “to increase sales by 10%.” To achieve that, some people might need to define new features and products, while others will have to work on improving the quality of leads. Each sub-goal may be an overarching goal for a series of activities and discussions and, therefore, can be a valid Mission. Ultimately, neither stands by itself; these Missions are merely parts of the grander Mission to increase sales.
This is a simple example of a hierarchy of Missions. After you define them, you’d have to pick the right one for any upcoming interaction, depending on what you wish to achieve. If you are familiar with the OKR method, you might see the similarity to the hierarchical nature of Objectives and Key Results. As we already discussed, there is a strong relationship between OKRs and the pool of Missions we can work with. And just like OKRs, Missions can form a hierarchical structure.
Remember, the Mission provides us with the context for our communication. Generative Communication always has context — a goal to serve — and we must make sure the communication is meaningful and has value within the scope of this goal. When you can’t establish a connection to the Mission, skip the interaction or change its essence. Otherwise, it will simply not be effective.
Defining the Mission is just the first step, though. Not every interaction derived from the Mission is effective. To deliver value, Generative Communication requires more than just a well-defined Mission — it requires a concrete Initiative that can take us one step closer to our overarching goal.