Turning a mission into a strategy

I admire those organisations in our community that deliver a broad and diverse range of programs into our communities. They are the glue that holds us together especially so in 2020. One of the larger community health providers near my house has more than 170 distinct service programs.

Yet when I bring up the touchy topic of individual program viability, they’ll almost certainly tell me “every program is important” or “ït’s why we exist” or “the need is there, we just have to make it work”. They are probably right. Their services have been funded for a reason, and that reason is valid.

The challenge as I see it, is not about the mission itself, it's how you operationalise a complex set of operating parameters to achieve it. The "how". NASA completed 135 ground-breaking Space Shuttle missions between 1981 and 2011. An amazing technological achievement.

As we've seen in Victoria recently, the world on Earth is complex and evolving. How can you better understand the issues at hand and the context in which we operate to keep us "on mission"?

Growth is good, isn't it?

Striving for revenue growth is obviously crucial. More money means more reach and more jobs. While double digit growth looks impressive, look out for the tiny cracks in the foundations of your business operations that will gradually widen if not kept in check.

There were 27,000 ceramic tiles on the Space Shuttle designed to withstand 1,650 degree temperatures. Each one was individually inspected before launch and after re-entry. Every time the Shuttle entered the atmosphere it lost several of these tiles, but was safe enough as long as several didn’t come off in one spot.

Look for the subtle flaws in your day-to-day operations that could become compliance headaches or excessive overheads later on. How familiar do they sound?

  • New employees are poorly trained and often expected to learn on the job by themselves

  • You can't find workers quickly enough to meet demand

  • You haven't accurately understood the cost of making products or delivering services

  • Your customer service isn't quite where it needs to be

A growth phase is an exciting and rewarding time for any business. The primary goal is to keep the top line well nourished with recurring revenue streams. The secondary goal is sustainability. It doesn't naturally follow. Organisations often underestimate the intense pressure placed on operations and the back office that accompanies rapid growth.

De-mystifying your mission

Let’s start with mission statements. If you look hard enough, you can creatively tie almost any strategic funding opportunity to an inspiring mission statement.

NASA's mission is to explore, use, and enable the development of space for human enterprise.

Here on Earth, here is one example: “We reach out to people with ____________ supporting them in achieving self-fulfillment and connection with the greater community”.

The key phrases here are:

  1. Reach out

  2. Self-fulfillment

  3. Connection

My first question is: How would you know you have successfully achieved self-fulfillment and connection? Broad mission statements are well meaning, but they are notoriously difficult to operationalise in the day-to-day (i.e. especially measure).

My second question is: What isn't part of this mission? If the goal is self-fulfillment and connection, there are a thousand ways that could be tackled.

In the name of the cause

What I often see are management teams taking on as much as they can in the name of the “cause” and regrettably spreading themselves too thin. One of the main reasons the sustainability struggle is real - is trying to do too many things at the same time. It's important to have focus, discipline, and gather the data to tell you what is working and what isn't.

What is essential is a clear strategy to determine what is on or off mission.

Otherwise you are always battling “mission fit” (broad justification for chasing any kind of funding stream) versus business discipline. When "mission fit" wins, you end up with a portfolio of disproportionately low revenue programs and services with very specific operational nuances. A forever burgeoning back office somehow has to make it work both financially and operationally.

Embracing "mission fit" is, in other words, when the tail wags the dog.

You’ll likely see this if:

  • The management team’s capability and capacity are spread too thin leading to rash decision making

  • People waste time chasing every funding source possible even if remotely linked to mission

  • Too much is spent on back office functions to support tiny (micro) programs that will never be anything but tiny

  • Focus is lost. The organisation drifts away from what it does well so it does nothing well (operationally anyway)

No prizes for guessing the ultimate consequence: lost customers, alienated stakeholders, good employees get burned out and your reputation takes a hit.

Yes, every program is important. The question is how far do you stretch into new areas? How distracting and draining are a plethora of small programs?

Operationalising a mission

The first task is to operationalise a broad mission into implementable and measurable strategic intents.

Firstly, objectively (sans emotion) assess each program’s contribution to your strategic aims against specific criteria.

These are the four lens you can use to evaluate programs:

  • Financial (the easy one)

  • Customer Value/Growth

  • Organisational Learning

  • Program & Service Capability

Financials are not measured as accurately and often enough as they should be despite being (somewhat easily) measurable and tangible (cash in/cash out).

NASA use 9 Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) to assess the readiness of a technology to send people into space and bring them home. Each technology is continuously assessed before it is integrated into ongoing missions.

Secondly, some earnest self-reflection always helps. What information would you need to gather to answer these questions?

  • What’s working well now?

  • How efficient are we now?

  • Which programs are viable now? Which should we be saying no to?

  • What grants or funding should we seek in the future?

No-one wants to say "no" to helping someone, but sometimes it’s hard to see that giving something up could make a greater impact somewhere else.

Where to from here?

Every program is important. You, and they, exist for a reason.

NASA's challenge is to integrate a collection of technologies into a functioning and mission-ready Space Shuttle.

Organisations are no different. They too are integrating a collection of technologies, people and processes to achieve their mission.

The trouble is owning and walking a dog with a very long tail is problematic – operational complexity, management distractions, greater overheads and confusion amongst your stakeholders will hinder your sustainability and ultimately growth prospects.

You will only understand this if you are consciously looking for it. A curious mind seeks out the feedback (data and information) about what's working and what's not. The truth is out there.

It takes tremendous courage to say no to create or strengthen the foundations and disciplines for growth. This is the crux of the matter. What will help you walk away from those things you are not good at so you can do more of the good stuff?

About Bruce Mullan

Bruce Mullan is an organisational trainer and performance coach who works with leaders to successfully navigate the growing complexity of our external world.

Connect with him on Linked in: www.linkedin.com/in/brucemullan

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