How often do you think about why you do what you do? Purpose matters. When we align around shared purpose, we turn moonshots into moon landings.
There is a famous story about President John F. Kennedy’s first visit to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) headquarters in 1961. During his visit, the story goes, President Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and asked: “What are you doing?” “Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”
Understanding our purpose, the literal words on a website, memo, or policy document, is the first part. An even bigger question is: do we really believe in this purpose?
Business futurist and author, Cecily Sommers, describes the role of leadership in catalyzing the reasons to believe.
“The ultimate function of leadership is to inspire people to work cooperatively toward a common vision. As you may know from your own experience managing a team, family, project, or even just a meeting, this is no easy feat. For people to invest themselves in a coordinated effort, they have to know that what’s good for the group is relevant to their personal values and aspirations.”
What does this mean for IT Modernization or 21st Century IDEA? At the Centers of Excellence (CoE), we start with purpose. To help agencies innovate from within, we bring people together to make big IT Modernization strategies come to fruition. We build community with people who will be adopting new technologies, like robotic process automation (RPA) or artificial intelligence (AI).
Check out the following “wisdom gems” we put together from our experience working across federal agencies. We encourage you to try them!
Wisdom Gem 1: Vision & Mission—There’s a Difference
Government agencies are mission-based. Yet goals, objectives, missions, and visions often get confused. Clarify the difference.
A mission is a specific task in which an organization is charged. Visions are aspirational. Visions are not bound by resource limitations. A vision is bigger than big: it’s a future destination. It’s the picture, the feeling, or the ideas that come to mind when you say “imagine a future where…” It’s a lift that requires us all to stretch as individuals, teams, and holistic organizations to deliver on our missions.
For example, a functional mission is “deliver food to people.” An inspirational vision is “people never go hungry across the nation.” The vision inspires us to keep growing and getting better at achieving our mission. Strategic goals and objectives are designed to roll up to drive a mission which advances us towards a vision
A group from the Centers of Excellence come together to vision and reflect together.
Wisdom Gem 2: Begin by Listening (Really Listen)
People are more likely to support and implement a vision when they feel that they belong. Remember the janitor sweeping the floors at NASA? He was bought into the vision to put a man on the moon. Scientific studies show that people work better when they can see themselves reflected in a vision.
As a leader, you can create space for people to share their viewpoints. Bring your key stakeholders together and ask them what they envision for the future. Invite them to write sentences down on Post-Its during a design thinking activity or use index cards. This work helps you understand the diverse perspectives and motivations in the collaboration equation. It also helps the team understand that they’re part of something bigger — more than a list of tasks.
Ashley Wichman, Program Analyst for Employee Engagement at TTS notes that “Facilitating a meaningful conversation between people who may see the world differently is key — this exchange, whether in times of crisis or everyday work activities, is part of what bonds us in shared purpose.” To get you started, we have published a number of employee engagement methods that you can try (virtual or in-person) to bring people together.
Wisdom Gem 3: Triangulate and Align
After gathering input from your stakeholders, it’s time to bring your core vision to life.
Take the patterns and insights you find amongst your stakeholders and map them to larger organizational strategic plans and even higher level management imperatives, like the President’s Management Agenda.
Reach back out to your stakeholders and ask them for quick input to help them see the connections between micro and macro visions. Think of the sample from earlier in the article If “deliver food to people” is the mission, take time to help different people understand how their unique roles, like driving a truck or orchestrating annual budgets, are part of the future where “people never go hungry across the nation.” When you hone in on the vision statement, some stakeholders’ words may not be included. Help them understand that, not unlike a smoothie, just because the original ingredient isn’t visually obvious, doesn’t mean it isn’t there and adding value!
Wisdom Gem 4: Refine and Listen More
When you’re working with diverse stakeholder groups, there are a broader range of ideas you’ll need to accommodate. Harvard Professor David Parkes at Harvard’s Data Science Initiative says that, “Decision making requires bringing together + reconciling multiple points of view. Decision making requires leadership in advocating + explaining a path forward. Decision making requires dialogue.”
When you’re refining the vision, bring groups back together and report out on vision drafts. Invite colleagues to give feedback on different vision scenarios. Offer them the opportunity to explore these ideas in a tangible way before they’re finalized: try out new methods like tactile supplies that appeal to the senses. How might you take testing cues from best practices like 18F’s Multivariate Testing Methods and apply them to words within a vision statement? How can messages be integrated into product feature development?
Wisdom Gem 5: Living the Vision
It’s critical to acknowledge that mission and vision stories are living, like you and I, and we must keep them fresh over time. Thinking of NASA and moonshot example, this vision was achieved in 1969. A man was sent to the moon. In the present, NASA’s vision is broader — “We will continue to push the frontier of space. We will develop new technologies for use in air, space, and on the ground.”
Leaders keep listening and updating, they should be revisited regularly. Visions aren’t one-offs from a workshop during performance planning. Strong visions are regularly talked about and values manifest as behaviors in action.
Like NASA, what’s the next “frontier” for your organization?
Let’s create a future where more people flourish and feel that they belong! Check out more collaborative employee engagement resources produced by the CoE.