III. Serve the Mission

If I asked you what success looks like for you personally, what would you say? What about for your team? If each person in your organization wrote down the org’s mission, would they use the same words? Would everyone see the world the same way? 

One of the reasons sports are so powerful, is that they force everyone, up front, to agree on the rules of play and what constitutes victory. A scoreboard’s brilliance is that at a glance you know where you stand and why what you’re doing matters. The world of work should take this lesson to heart. Far too often, we aren’t clear on our mission and as a result, our role to play in its achievement is unclear. 

At its core, a well-articulated mission is a choice - it forces tradeoffs and tells our team what is valued.  There are many useful things we could spend time on, but this is the one we place above all else. The other priorities are not unimportant, but this one is most important.  This is what we are here to do.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

To be effective, the singular mission must spread to others, and to do that requires simplicity. It’s not enough for a few people at the top to understand how the game is being scored - everyone must know the game being played. Done well, leadership ceases to be a job title or position in the org chart, but instead is lived across the organization. This is the real leverage of leadership.

The Agile Manifesto signatories understood the power of a clear mission. They may have articulated 12 Principles, but they knew which mattered most. 

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
— Agile Manifesto

Seen through the lens of this ‘highest priority’, principles such as self-organizing teams, face-to-face conversation, and working software can be seen as more than a set of random behaviors. Upon examination we realize these practices are aimed squarely at one thing - improving our odds of satisfying the customer. A clear mission, transforms these principles from a disjointed ‘how’ to an aligned ‘why’. The ends do not justify the means, they dictate them.

Without clarity of purpose, you’re left with external motivation - the carrot and stick,  “I told you so”,  “it’s your job”, and the like. Doing work that matters, for a cause bigger than yourself is the slow burning fuel of excellence. If you’re doing things simply because you’re being told, leadership has failed you. 

As a leader, you must decide what matters most and ensure understanding through clarity and simplicity. If the team doesn’t understand what success looks like, then you are the problem, not the team. Place long term success above your short term desires, adapt when necessary, and serve the mission. 

articles in the series