• Opinion
  • August 21, 2019
  • 13 minutes
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How to write a mission statement for government

Opinion: Design thinking and lean to the rescue

This article was written by Benjamin Teed, Senior Policy Analyst in the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, Northwest Territories, Canada. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed. 


What’s your organisation’s mission?

Hopefully you know what it does on a day-to-day basis and you can probably articulate a general theme of its functions, but what’s its purpose? What’s its vision for the future?

If you work in government, you probably have to dig into the website to find an annual report or corporate plan, and you’ll find a few platitudes somewhere on page six. Open a browser tab and type “about.google”. Right in the middle of the page in big, prominent letters you’ll see this:

“Our mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Obviously, this is a company that makes its mission central to its business, but what makes it a good mission statement?

The mission of governing

Sure, the statement is visionary and inspiring but it’s also clear and actionable.

Harvard professor David Collis says in Lean Strategy that effective strategy encourages entrepreneurial behaviour by identifying the bounds within which innovation should take place.

The opportunity cost of doing A is that you can’t do B, so strategy is as much about deciding what that organisation should not do as what it should. What’s great about Google’s mission statement is that, as visionary as it is, it provides concrete guidance for where day-to-day efforts should and should not be focused.

Now, you might say “that’s fine for them, they’re a private company. Here in the government we have to design our horses by committee.” Some of the greatest vision statements in history have been designed by government committees; that’s the essence of a constitution. The problem is that it’s slow and unpredictable.

Design thinking is about creating repeatable processes for harnessing human creativity. Can we create a repeatable, scalable process that lets public servants bring out the best, most visionary parts of our leaders, our stakeholders, and ourselves?

Tip of the iceberg

I’m not sure how to answer this question yet, but here’s an idea I’ve been playing with.

Good design takes work and perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Where we get into trouble is when we treat the development of our vision as a communication exercise.

We get nice-sounding platitudes because we’re only harnessing one kind of creativity. Think of it like an iceberg: the visible tip that we communicate is supported by all the analysis and synthesis that went into it.

The communication aspect is critical, but we need to allow the best substantive ideas to bubble out of the process before we send it along to the wordsmiths.

Define the problem

From the perspective of your stakeholders, what concrete problem is the organisation trying to solve?

Equivalently for glass-half-full types, what opportunity is the organisation trying to take advantage of? Do the best you can with this, but recognise that whatever you say here is going to change as you go through the rest of the process.

This can happen at different levels of granularity. Maybe you’re undertaking this exercise for a whole department. Maybe you’re developing a strategy to advance one specific priority. The process is the same. The difference is in the scale.

Understand the context

Next, assemble a team of smart people with a diversity of perspectives on the problem you have identified.

Representation from stakeholders is great as long as it doesn’t make the exercise political. Put them in a room and have them do the following things:

  • Identify and critically analyse their assumptions about the problem. Is each one supported, supported with caveats, or unsupported? How would each assumption affect the problem if it were wrong?
  • Brainstorm the driving forces relevant to the issue.
  • Systematically examine the interrelationships between the driving forces. Create a matrix with each one along the side and the top. For each pair, identify the magnitude (strong, weak or none) and direction (positive or negative) of impact on each other. Analyse the matrix for direct and indirect impacts and feedback loops.
  • Redefine the problem as necessary with the new depth of understanding.

Analyse scenarios

The major challenge to a design-led approach to strategic vision is that a key aspect of design thinking is rapid prototyping and feedback.

How does that work when you’re talking about long-term visions for the future? It works because a prototype is just an approximation of reality that serves some useful purpose. Prototyping can mean anything from creating a paper mockup of an app interface to a computationally modelling the aerodynamics of an airplane.

If you followed this approach, you should now have a clear, inspiring vision for the future

For our purposes, we can prototype the future because it’s not about predicting what will happen — it’s about opening our minds to the possibilities in a structured, rigorous way.

The method here is called the Cone of Plausibility. There are other options (see, for example, Heuer and Pherson for details of several scenario analysis methods) but this one strikes a good balance between rigor and accessibility.

  • Based on your earlier analysis, identify the four to seven key variables with the most impact on the issue.
  • Establish a specific, long-term timeframe and look at each key variable in turn. What’s the baseline, status quo assumption about how each key variable is most likely to play out over that timeframe?
  • Develop a baseline scenario that carries forward the status quo. How will the issue look at the end of the timeframe if each key variable continues as you expect? Develop a narrative (i.e. write a story) describing the future state and how it came about.
  • Go through the key variables and challenge the status quo assumptions (both for better and for worse). How would changing the assumptions about one or more key variables affect the future state?
  • Brainstorm low probability/high impact events, sometimes called “black swan events”. How would they affect the key variables? How would they affect the future state?
  • Identify several alternate future scenarios that merit further consideration. This might be because they seem especially plausible, are particularly positive or negative, or are just interesting, thought-provoking wildcards. Develop a narrative for each, describing the future state and how it came about.

Create engagement

Package your scenario analysis up and share it with the organisation, your stakeholders, and the public at large. Not only will opening it up to feedback at this stage make it better, but for public sector organisations it serves an important leadership function.

Laying out a range of paths for your stakeholders to consider opens their minds to the possibilities just as much as it opens yours. It not only creates deep buy-in from stakeholders, but inspires and promotes long-term, visionary thinking in them as well. Plus, if you’ve done it right, it’s a really interesting read.

Define your vision

You’ve now fully analysed your organisation’s context and projected it into the future. You’ve explored different possible futures with your stakeholders and hopefully inspired them to care deeply about the long-term outcome of your issue.

Now the organisation’s leadership needs to decide: what future do they want and what’s the organisation’s role in it? With a clear vision of the future that’s ambitious but also grounded in reality, you come full circle to communicating that vision in an inspiring way.

Job done, now what?

If you followed this approach, you should now have a clear, inspiring vision for the future.

So what do you do now? You start on your strategic analysis, continuous improvement, innovation and everything else that will help you move towards that future.

Because you have a clear vision for where you’re going in the long term and everyone understands what it is, it lets the organisation flexibly adapt its near-term strategy (what Collis calls deliberate strategy) to continually changing circumstances.

It also promotes internal alignment and allows an entrepreneurial culture to flourish because when someone has an idea or sees an opportunity, it can be quickly filtered against whether it moves the organisation closer to its vision (what Collis calls emergent strategy).

Success becomes about what tangibly moves the organisation closer to its vision instead of about hitting the milestones on a five-year GANTT chart.

This is all easier said than done — I know that because my colleagues and I are in the early stages ourselves — but that’s exactly the point! It’s easy to fall back on what sounds good and seems obvious or trendy, but we’re dealing with complex problems in a complex world. The process is intended to slow us down: make us question conventional wisdom, be transparent about our reasoning, and open our minds to a range of possibilities even if some make us uncomfortable.

That’s hard to do, but it may be how we can build consensus around clear and meaningful visions for the future.

Few institutions play a bigger role in our lives than government and none have a greater responsibility to balance such a diverse and interconnected set of interests. If we let government be guided by empty buzzwords, we’re falling short of delivering on this responsibility. — Benjamin Teed

(Picture credit: Death to the stock photo) 

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