02 Define an Overarching, Tangible Mission

Any communication flow must start with defining or identifying the overarching mission we aim to achieve. The mission is our lighthouse, showing us the right direction. It should help us design the next communication step, but it will never dictate it. 

So, will a mission statement like Google’s “to organize the world’s information” be practical for everyday communication? Can something along the lines of Tesla’s mission “to build a world powered by solar energy” help us write an effective email? Can my personal mission, “to help people master their Generative Skills,” guide me in designing an effective meeting with a client?

Every organization should have a mission statement; a personal mission statement is equally important. A well-defined mission statement can guide us personally or collectively when making grand decisions. These long-term mission statements are often very abstract and high-level. After all, we don’t change them monthly or even annually; we typically have one mission at any given time. 

It is easy to confuse the mission we need when we wish to communicate effectively with the much grander, more generalized, and, in our context, not particularly useful organizational or personal mission. An organizational or personal mission statement provides us with orientation for long distances. You can think of it as a North Star rather than a lighthouse. As such, it is less helpful in refining a concrete activity like an upcoming meeting or a written report in the context of a specific project. It is so high-level that everything that comes to mind can be somehow connected to it. Sometimes, it is phrased too abstractly for anyone to be convinced that the concrete issue at stake can really move the needle and take you closer to that long-term destination.

When we need to define a mission for effective communication, the first step is to make sure it goes beyond the scope of a single concrete interaction. The mission we define will help us ensure that the objective of the specific interaction — the initiative we will define next — has value in a broader context. The combination of the initiative and the mission will be our primary tool in managing the discussion and refining its content. 

While the mission must be grander than the target of any concrete interaction, it must also be tangible and within reach. When the mission is abstract or distant, it cannot help us make the most of our upcoming interactions. The mission should provide us with context and guidance for deciding what to communicate and how to communicate. To use it, we must see it clearly in our minds. In many cases, this kind of mission is already defined, and we just need to identify and connect it with the current communication flow. 

If you are an HR Manager considering setting up a meeting to discuss the attrition level in your organization, think of your mission: What purpose will this discussion serve? One valid mission could be “to reduce the attrition level.” No single meeting will achieve that goal, but you can use it to verify that any upcoming interaction will take you one step closer to this destination. It’s a tangible goal everyone can understand and relate to when they consider what and how to communicate. Another possible mission would be “to have the best employees in the industry.” It’s a higher-level mission that opens the door to the question, “Is attrition our biggest problem in that context?” Maybe a discussion about recruiting the right people will take us closer to our destination. Perhaps this discussion will result in better outcomes than the one you initially had in mind. 

If you are a sales manager and wish to discuss the sales status with your team, you must define an overarching mission to provide the context and guidance for such a discussion. A mission such as “to meet the quarterly sales targets” will do just fine, but of course, you can aim higher and define the mission as “to increase sales by 10% compared to the previous quarter.” No single meeting, email, or document you share will result in a silver bullet that immediately turns this mission into a reality. But you and your team must ensure that any communication in the context of this mission can help you get there, even if only by one small step. 

As a project manager, defining the mission of practically any meeting and email as “to meet the committed project targets” seems trivial. One might argue that any activity done as part of the project must be derived from this mission. Unfortunately, much of the communication in a typical project is nothing more than sharing the same reports and discussing the same risks repeatedly without making much progress. The mission we define is never just a declaration. We must use it to design our meetings, emails, and conversations so they help us move toward it. When any interaction is oriented toward this joint goal, communication becomes an integral part of the project, not a weekly nuisance. 

One useful source for defining the mission of a communication flow is built into a method many organizations and teams use to set and track goals. It is called OKR (Objectives and Key-Results) and is based on a simple yet powerful idea. The core principle of OKR is that Objectives are defined for no more than three months. The team’s focus is on the Objectives for the current quarter. The resolution of the Objectives allows everyone working on them to keep their eyes on a well-defined target and track their progress throughout this short period. The OKR method also asks us to break these quarterly Objectives into a few Key Results. Key Results are measurable milestones that help the team plan and verify their progress toward the somewhat grander Objective. 

The OKR method has many benefits in managing teams, increasing engagement and motivation, and achieving more goals. One important trait of OKRs can help us promote Generative Communication: Objectives and Key Results have tangible business value, but at the same time, they go beyond the scope of any single concrete task. In other words, to achieve each Key Result and each Objective, we need to perform a series of tasks and activities. When defining the mission for a series of interactions, these predefined OKRs are obvious candidates. After all, communication activities should be treated just like any other task we perform as part of our job. All we have to do is find a predefined Objective or Key Result that we wish to promote and design the interaction to take us one step closer to that destination.

OKRs are perfectly balanced for our purpose. They don’t dictate what actions we need to take, but they help us evaluate each activity (or each interaction) and ensure it is meaningful. This is not to say that the list of OKRs is the only valid source for meaningful missions. However, in organizations that have already implemented the OKR method, the list of active OKRs is the best place to start looking for an applicable one. 

A tangible mission shouldn’t necessarily be measurable or easy to quantify. We were all taught that targets should be measurable and that anything not measurable cannot be managed. I beg to differ. A lighthouse is not a GPS. It also can’t provide us with an accurate indication that we arrived safely at our destination. A lighthouse gives us a sense of direction, which is precisely what the mission should do for our interactions. If your mission is “to have the best employees,” you might never know if you’ve actually achieved it, but as a lighthouse, it will direct you and your colleagues in every discussion in its context. As long as you can verify that any interaction along the way can take you one step closer to the destination, the mission is tangible. 

Whether you use OKRs or other methods to define your goals, defining or identifying an overarching, tangible mission is always the first step in a communication flow. No meeting, email, or conversation will be effective before you can articulate your mission. Often, defining the mission turns communication from a frustrating experience into a pivotal activity.

Reflection and Practice

Before initiating your next interaction, whether an email or a meeting, consider and phrase the overarching mission. 

Verify that: 

  • The mission goes beyond the scope of what you are trying to achieve with the specific email or meeting. 
  • The mission is tangible and achievable in a reasonable time.

Consult your colleagues to ensure your mission is well-defined and well-understood.

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