What is it that determines the real mission of an organization? I don’t mean the mission statement that a group of well meaning committee members hashed out over the course of six weeks and laminated into wall posters and web banners. I mean the mission that drives the behavior of the organization day in and day out. What determines that?
Over the course of my one-year sabbatical as an executive coach to nonprofit leaders, I’ve developed a hypothesis regarding the answer to this question: Where your measures are, there your mission will be also.
Measures drive Mission. We know this is true in our work lives. As one of my favorite thinkers, the late Eli Goldratt said often, “Tell me how you will measure me, and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave.” What I’ve discovered is that this is true for whole organizations as well. The measures that are made, tracked and talked about will determine what is done and what gets done. What gets done determines what “mission” is accomplished by the organization, at least to a much greater extent than what gets laminated does. So what?
Well, so nothing. At least if the measures of an organization are in line with the stated mission and desired outcomes of the organization. Every nonprofit has a mission, a reason that the organization exists, a purpose that everything aims to serve. The ideal sequence in the life of a nonprofit is this: First, a need is identified and an effort to reduce or eliminate this need is initiated; Second, measures of the impact of these efforts are put in place and tracked; and Third, the review of those measures directs the continuing efforts and the accomplishment of more and more of the organization’s mission. The first and third steps always happen. Let’s look at the second.
Where measures originate matters. In the ideal case above, the measures are created by the leaders to serve as a direct gauge of the progress toward meeting the organizational mission. More often, measures are created and kept to respond to the outside requests for measures. Boards expect measures, donors expect measures, granting agencies not only expect measures, but tell the organizations specifically what to measure and report as a condition of receiving the funds. This demand for more and more measures has an interesting effect on many nonprofit organizations: huge scorecards. It is not uncommon to find scorecards with fifty or one hundred or more items being measured.
With this many measures, the coaching questions, “Did your organization have a good year last year?,” and, “How do you know?” shouldn’t pose much of a challenge for executive directors. However, these turn out to be hard questions. Invariably, the response to the first question is, “yes, we had a great year last year.” This is probably less because nonprofit organizations found 2011 to be a wonderful year, and more because nonprofit executives are conditioned to be positive and optimistic about the work of the organization. The second question, and I do feel a little guilty every time I drop this one on those I’m talking with, lands like a right hook. Their answers include anecdotes and stories of those that have been helped, but rarely do we head toward the scorecard or examine the measures that the director dutifully tracks month by month. This is a primary disconnect in too many organizations.
(I want to let my nonprofit colleagues off the hook here. While the CEOs of for profit companies would never struggle to answer the questions in the paragraph above, their use of measures to effectively accomplish the purposes of their organizations has just as much opportunity for improvement. In fact, they may face a greater challenge, because while almost no organization exists simply to increase earnings per share or drive up the stock price, those measures easily become an ever-present distraction, keeping leaders from the true missions of their companies.)
Change the measures: change the conversation. The good news is that understanding the direct link between measures and mission gives the leaders of nonprofit organizations a powerful lever to move their teams in a desired direction. Driving the mission by choosing, tracking and communicating the specific measures that are most directly related to the mission will be a key element of great leadership. It won’t be easy, but it will be powerful.
I’m rooting for you.