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March, 28, 2017  |  Mike Rowlands  |  

Elements of Strategy: Focus Your Mission

Often strategy involves myriad diverse stakeholders, numerous possible futures, and a dizzying range of possibilities. 

Mike Rowlands
Mike is President & CEO at Junxion. He has guided strategy development with early stage ventures, decades old corporations, not-for-profits and charities, and government agencies.

Strategy Can Be a Highly Complex Process

Often strategy involves myriad diverse stakeholders, numerous possible futures, and a dizzying range of possibilities. Yet in the end, strategy is also simple: It’s a plan of action to achieve a desired goal.

In our last post, we talked about the first element of strategy—a clear, compelling, aspirational and actionable vision. A well-developed vision answers a single penetrating question: How will the world be made better by your work? It’s a deceptive question, in that the answer must draw on your deepest hopes about the contribution you can make through your organization.

Next, you’ll need to understand the most efficient approach to achieving your vision. What’s the best focus for your day-to-day work? That, by definition, is your mission. And once you’re clear on your mission, you can rally the essential energy and support of your colleagues and stakeholders.

So how do you decide on and articulate your mission? Start by answering another compelling question….

What can you do—only you—to bring about ‘the change you seek?’

Whether you’re in a traditionally structured corporation, a social venture, a non-profit social enterprise, a charity or a foundation, it’s an essential element of strategy that you’re clear on the scope of the work you’ll do—and not do. 

Do you focus your capacity solely and directly on achieving your vision?

Obvious? Maybe. But in our experience, it’s unusual for contemporary organizations to constrain their focus and efforts to stay rigidly true to their visions. This wasn’t always so.

Many moons ago, in the wake of the American Revolution, companies there could only undertake work that served their registered purpose. They could not own other companies unless they were essential to that same purpose, and they could not make charitable or political contributions, nor spend money to influence the law. If a company was registered to build a bridge or a road, for example, all its activities had to make a meaningful contribution to the construction of that bridge or road. That was the company’s purpose—it’s mission.

Times have changed, and today, the constraints on what a company can or cannot do are looser. Interestingly, in many contexts around the world, the constraints on non-profits are tighter. Take our client imagine1day, which we mentioned in our last post. In Ethiopia, where they operate, it’s not legal for them to establish a social enterprise; their work must be entirely charitable or philanthropic.

The broader lesson, though, is that it’s useful to consider what you would do if you were only allowed to do work that clearly contributed to your mission. It’s an incredibly valuable thought exercise, with at least three component parts….

What are you uniquely positioned to do?

In business, we look for the space that others aren’t occupying—the ‘Blue Ocean.’ In the social sector, we look for the additive work—the work that others aren’t or can’t do to drive ‘the change we seek.’ In either case, what we hope to find is a distinctive offering that stands apart as a high value contribution to the world.

In that context, what capabilities do you have or can you build?

You may be able to see a distinct place to make a valuable contribution, but that doesn’t mean you’re fully equipped to deliver it. So you may decide that’s the wrong work to undertake. Or you may decide you need to build new capabilities.

Take for example our client, Hollyhock. They have a profound opportunity to amplify and distribute the teachings of their enviable cohort of presenters, but to do so, they’ll need to develop the in-house capacity to package their teachings and distribute them across diverse alternative media. 

To think across markets and systems can be hard in a ‘winner takes all’ mindset.

So their strategic plan considers the development of this capacity in the years ahead, because it’s directly on Hollyhock’s mission ‘to support, nourish and inspire people making the world better.’

Finally, what is reasonable for you to undertake, and what is better left to peers in your market? This can be counterintuitive for those who grew up in the ‘winner takes all’ world of business. In the social sector, where visions tend to be far more aspirational than any one organization might achieve, it seems easier to focus capacity where it’s most effective, leaving other work to other organizations.

Companies are being pushed by the emerging generation of leaders and by pressing global challenges like climate change, mass urbanization, and the growing wealth divide to embrace a purpose beyond profit. In response, the savvy entrepreneur or the wise corporate leader is taking a page from the social sector and looking at their sector as an interconnected system, where there’s space for many peers to work and thrive.

Notwithstanding this ‘abundance’ mindset, markets and systems of course change—often in ways beyond your control. So how will you respond? How do you stay clear and consistent in your mission, while also staying responsive to market conditions? That will be the topic of our next post…