12 May 2016

Mission-driven team

Adrift in the busyness of work, many of us react in auto-pilot mode to events that come our way daily. We know our job responsibilities and we know our span of authorities. And we solve problems – whatever they may be – day in and day out.

Lost in translation

In large companies, work can be mechanistic. Somebody at the top decides something, and then the rest follows because everything gets cascaded down the pyramid, in one flavour or another and often sprinkled with additional spices by the leader who cascades down the decision. And sometimes when it reaches down the front-liners, the spirit of the decision is lost and even misunderstood to be a negative thing. It takes a life of its own.

The more complex the organisation, the higher the tendency this happens.

Keeping the organisation small can mitigate the above tendency, but it is not always possible. Business grows and thus work increases and, correspondingly, the organisation size increases also, because not every work can be automated. So more people are added and so on and so forth. Eventually, organisational complexity creeps in.

Leaders need to manage the organisational complexity proactively to prevent it from crippling the business. But ultimately, leaders cannot control every minutiae of the team's work. They need the team to self-manage, as much as possible, to get the work done.


My approach is to use the corporate mission as the driving force to unite and align the team.

Develop the MBS – Mission Breakdown Structure

Maybe you are familiar with the concept of WBS – work breakdown structure: decomposing or breaking down something “big” into smaller subsets or chunks, i.e. divide and conquer. We can apply the same concept for mission.

Start with the corporate mission

Most companies have a mission statement. Regardless, every company essentially exists around one (or more) specific mission. The mission is the reason why the company exists. This is the overarching goal for every employees. There should be no doubt in the team about what the mission is.

But the corporate mission might be too high level for an individual team or department to directly influence their day-to-day job. For example, a corporate mission that says “curing cancer” is directly translatable to the R&D team's work, but only indirectly if you are in the networking team.

Next, identify the team's internal mission_**

Leaders need to make the corporate mission more specific to the team's context and this can be expressed by developing an internal mission which support the corporate mission. Obviously, the internal mission must be subordinate to the corporate mission. We cannot have unaligned mission. They need to connect to or support the corporate mission.

The internal mission does not need to be in the form for a mission statement. It can, but it does not need to. Bullet points can be as effective, but don't have too many. There is virtue in focused internal mission.

So, isn't this the same as the performance objectives? Not quite.

Map the objectives to the mission

At the beginning of the year, we set our objectives (a.k.a. performance goals) for the year and at the end of the year, we evaluate our achievements. The internal mission captures the spirit of why the team exists in the company. The objectives capture the priorities that need to be accomplished by the team in a given year as part of the mission.

Most annual objective changes year-to-year and it is often stated in the S.M.A.R.T. way (specific, measurable, actionable, result oriented, and time-bound). The team's mission typically would not change from year-to-year.

The mission is what frames the S.M.A.R.T. objectives. If something does not align with the internal mission, it should not be in the objective.

The structure is: company mission > internal mission > objectives / goals.

But don't carve it in stone

Some objectives are handed top down from “the mother ship” every year. Those need to be reframed into the internal mission, i.e. reinterpreted within the context of the internal mission. It is possible that one of the top down objectives sits outside the team's internal mission no matter how creative we try to reframe it.

The first time it happens, handle it as an exception. The second time the same top down objective shows up again, it may be time to re-evaluate the internal mission whether or not we need to update it. If the mother ship changes direction, our team needs to assess so our internal mission is still aligned with that new direction.

If well thought out, mission should not change often.

Brainwash the team with the mission

Okay, “brainwash” might be an exaggeration, but you get the point. Jazz up the MBS

In essence, an MBS can be represented by a hierarchical chart (or an upside down tree, if you'd like). But don't settle for boring. Invest time and creative effort to create a nice documentation.

It is that important.

Create a nice slide deck or even a printed booklet. And use it.

Communicate, again and again

If we cascade the company mission into the team's internal mission and further into annual objectives properly, then everybody should know it by heart. The performance evaluation process will take care of the communication by itself, right? Yes and no.

The performance evaluation process will surely take care the cold measurable monitoring of the S.M.A.R.T. objectives, but it may not capture the spirit of the mission. Mechanistic observation of the objectives will miss the targeted spirit of the mission, if the hearts and minds are not engaged.

The objectives are the measurable indicators of how we are doing our mission, but they do not represent the entirety of the spirit. Annual performance objectives are focused on a few high priority items. If we have too many objectives, then each becomes unimportant in the end.

We need to remind the team that outside of the measured objectives, there are other activities that are part of the mission that we must accomplish. We need to communicate again and again to the team about the team's mission, so they do not lose sight of why we do what we do. So they know that the mission is the reason for the objectives and not the other way around. So they do the objectives with the right mind set.

The objectives are the manifestation of the mission and not the other way around.

Acknowledge those who embody the spirit

The mission is bigger than the individual performance objectives. But financial reward is usually reserved only for the achievements of the performance objectives. However, acknowledgement or recognition is equally, if not more, important for positive reinforcement. Give recognition to the team members who embody the spirit of the mission in their daily work. Let them know the spirit of the mission is valued, not just the goals achievements.

Adapt the mission

Even if the corporate mission does not change, there are valid reasons to change the MBS. The internal team mission needs to adapt when needed because the world around us keeps advancing and the team's value proposition to the company evolves.

For example, delivering corporate IT solutions that have great user experience (UX) is one of my team's missions. Decades ago it would be unheard of. The environment and the technology were not quite the same to trigger such a mission. Remember punch card anyone?

Lead by example

Obviously, leaders need to authentically walk the talk. The team will not follow if we do not demonstrate with our concrete actions and support for the team. From top to bottom, everybody needs to live the mission.