How mission shapes high performance culture?
In the military, mission is everything--people lay down their lives for it. Sports is no different where individuals and teams exert themselves endlessly to achieve excellence. However, when it comes to the corporate world, the immense power of a worthy mission remains underappreciated. Some have used mission to achieve exceptional success like Space X, Amazon, and Google. Companies like Microsoft are trying to “rediscover” it and reaping rewards in the process. Yet some may not even think of it as necessary, and many others might just craft some words that mean little.
Consider Space X, a space company powered by the mission to make inter-planetary travel possible, beginning with sending a crew to Mars by 2024. A daunting task but clearly worthwhile, challenging, and energizing. And not to miss the impact of a long arc of intent that must be driving the organization’s engines for a long long time.
You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great - and that's what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It's about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can't think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
— ELON MUSK, SPACE X
It is not difficult to imagine how excited would the employees be in spite of grueling work, failed launches, and constant pressure to deliver high performance. On a more familiar territory is Amazon with its proclaimed mission of becoming Earth’s most customer-centric company. It doesn't sound as path breaking as Space X, but in the process the company has achieved outstanding success in multiple spheres. So, the question is: How does the mission help build a culture that delivers sustained high performance?
Desirable behaviors take a wing with a powerful mission
A powerful mission enables employees to adopt behaviors, whether articulated or not, that are best suited to achieve something impactful. In such an environment, at one extreme, even a relatively abrasive work culture (think of Apple in its early days or Amazon or Space X or Tesla of today) could pass off as perfectly fine as all that matters, is, people and teams taking firm steps toward realizing the mission. At other extreme, it makes management’s job much easier to ask for behaviors like collaboration (you don't have to explain why it is so important to work together or take people out for white-water rafting to build teams) or agility (there is already a sense of urgency). Since people display malleable behaviors, it also allows quick adjustments in strategy if something is not working as well as it should or the organization is confronted with some new uncertainty. A powerful mission reduces “organizational friction,” powering the whole ship with gusto.
But the biggest gain comes in the form of both the organization and the employees “doing the right things” almost instinctively. At the organizational level, it allows enlightened, quick decisions because no one wants to lose valuable time or opportunity. And at employees’ level, it often means accepting challenges, experimentation, and risk taking. Employees in mission-oriented organizations take “ownership” without calculating personal returns, and constantly exert themselves to combat newer challenges. Think about it: it releases so much of organizational energy in pursuit of a worthy mission that would otherwise go waste in micro-managing layers upon layers of people and processes, and keep motivating reluctant employees.
How do you know your mission is working?
Ask about a dozen employees across levels/functions to write down your organization’s mission, and describe what it really means to them? Alternatively, conduct face to face group discussion to assess how is your mission perceived and acted upon? In another exercise, ask your senior leaders to describe two to three key decisions (e.g., key hiring decisions, partnerships, new products, new markets, investment in building certain capabilities, etc.) that they would have taken in the last three quarters or so, which describe a path that was chosen over other possibilities in light of the mission. Also, assess the quality of business outcomes in the preceding five-year period especially when faced with rough environment. Finally, assess how optimistic are you about navigating the future and staying course with your mission? These simple dip-stick checks will tell you how much traction your mission has with day to day conduct of business? If the answer is towards affirmative, you are on the right track, and if not, it is a concern that needs to be addressed.
If you already have a powerful mission, make good use of it. If you lack such a mission, then think urgently to articulate one. If your founder had a mission but over subsequent growth years, it got eroded, try to rediscover it. In all cases, do not lose sight of authenticity. A truly great mission would allow your organization and the employees to “live” for something really inspiring and impactful, and in the process, create prosperity for all the stakeholders over long term.