radical Insights.

Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.

Uncertainty, Transition & the Clarifying Power of a Focused Mission.

Mar 17, 2020

The context of a global pandemic and the accompanying shock to markets provides a remarkable shit-hitting-fan moment for studying all sorts of organizational and system dynamics. The pressure is most visibly on governments to craft an effective response, rise to an exceedingly complex challenge (the kind of challenge we discussed in our last Briefing, #0018: It’s Not Complicated; it’s Just Hard), and navigate an environment of extreme uncertainty that threatens to tip into outright chaos. The difference in communication strategy and response management across administrations has been striking, to say the least, and the market response — confusion, doubt, fear — has been edifying.

It’s hard to fault the sellers who drove the major indices into a bear market: Already weeks into an unfolding crisis, US leadership at the highest level had yet to articulate anything like the what and how of a viable path forward. There had been little resolve, even less clarity, and zero sense of coalescing around a unifying mission. And particularly in times of uncertainty and transition, all three are absolutely essential.

Faced with the same rapidly evolving and tectonically shifting risk landscape, business leaders are navigating their own high-stakes transitions — likely just the first in a series as the wave of crisis and recovery unfolds. Companies around the world are scrambling to respond and adapt, and as an initial leap, many are transitioning hard into remote work. This is one of several Covid-19-driven trends likely to accelerate the development and adoption of infrastructure for the exponential era.

Some companies making the jump to remote are going to find, quickly, that they don’t have the tools to support distributed remote work at scale. We spoke with a firm last week that realized, almost immediately, that they simply didn’t have the VPN capacity to support handling sensitive data operations for a suddenly distributed workforce.

Other companies will find, slowly, that while they may have (or can quickly adopt) the right tools, they don’t have the right human systems or the right thinking in place. One 2019 study found that 44% of companies globally still didn’t allow remote work, while only 16% of companies were fully remote. The same researchers reported that 38% of remote workers and 15% of remote managers received no training on how to work remotely. Only about half of companies globally even have remote work policies.

Building and sustaining robust operations and culture across a distributed remote workforce is tricky even with solid lead time and design intention, and the organization runs a real risk of watching culture, cohesion, and accountability attenuate with distance. Managing a rapid transition only increases the degree of difficulty. And generally speaking, transitions (like the crises that precipitate them) tend to expose and sometimes exacerbate underlying vulnerabilities in organizations and systems. Public officials are confronting that reality currently; business leaders scrambling to adapt will as well.

One essential rule for holding things together in times of transition and uncertainty: Keep the mission front, center & focused. If that gets lost in chaos or over distance, so too does clarity, resolve, and the unifying sense of how I relate to We. Every member of the team (and the organization) should know what We are doing and how what I do supports the higher-level objectives all the way up and the local action all the way down. This nested ecology of interrelationships between local actors and teams is critical to the health of the superorganism (whether a company or a society), and it’s founded on a shared understanding of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

That understanding should be crystallized in a mission statement that’s easy to remember and hard to screw up. Simplicity is a virtue that amplifies the clarifying power. We favor the bullshit-filtering eight-word limit and rigorously simple mission statement template (Verb… Target… Outcome) created and advocated by Kevin Starr, Managing Director of the Mulago Foundation. Why? “Razor-sharp clarity about where you’re going allows you to ask three critically important questions: 1) Is this the best way to get there? 2) Is there anything else we should be doing to accelerate along the path? and 3) Is everything we’re doing really focused on getting there?”

These are powerful tools in crafting strategy and supporting execution and evaluating results. If the mission is where you’re going, then any transition, any response to a shifting landscape becomes part of how you’re going to get there — and becomes subject to Starr’s questions.

Think of your own organization and the road ahead. We’ll take a shot at a big (the biggest?) one here with a Starr-style mission statement for the moment:

Limit impact of pandemic on public health and economy.

Short, simple, and devoid of BS — stripped down to a verb, a target, and an outcome that suggests relevant metrics. We can also dress it up a little bit for the markets and media.

We’ll use the full power of government to limit the impact of the pandemic on public health and the economy.

Imagine the clarifying and galvanizing power here and what is communicated across an entire ecosystem to local teams and individual actors in support of value-alignment, enhanced motivation & a commitment to mutual well-being. And now each of those teams and actors is enabled to evaluate local strategy, execution, and results against that shared understanding of global goals. How would a statement like this — issued forcefully and early — have shaped the response to Covid-19 and enabled the rapid transition and mobilization of systems and resources and influenced local action down to the level of individual behavior?

We’ll be watching (and supporting) leaders as they navigate an environment of extreme uncertainty and complexity and manage high-stakes transitions in the weeks and months ahead. And we’ll be exploring the value and craft of a mission statement more deeply in an April webinar with our Digital Learning Partners.

Closing note: If you’re about to move your organization to remote/distributed, we can point you to an excellent guide in our radical Recommends section below.

radically yours,

Jeffrey and the be radical team

P.S. Interested in exploring how this applies to your organization and your products & services? Find out how be radical can help you. Simply hit reply to this email, tell us a bit about yourself and the opportunity/challenge you face, and we will be in touch.

radical Recommends:

We get it. There’s a lot out there. With radical Recommends, we’re not going to overwhelm you. We’ll only highlight a couple of reads/watches/listens each Briefing that are shaping our thinking, challenging our assumptions, or changing our minds.

⇒ Transitioning your organization to remote/distributed? You should absolutely be reading radical Expert John O’Duinn, our go-to on all things remote work.

⇒ A writer enlists a predictive text AI to help him write an exploration on the present and future creative potential of language learning models. One of the more thoughtful pieces on the subject; worth looping back if you missed it.