When Your Values And Mission Are All You've Got
…How to ask frustratingly wise questions
I’ve come to the point in my career as an Experience Strategist where I can comfortably ask a client how their Values, Mission, and Vision statements feed into their organization’s daily work product. I’m old enough, experienced enough, (and vested in a pension enough) to ask such seemingly simple, irrelevant questions of organizationally important people. If you want to stump an executive or a senior manager sometime, give this try; it’s fun and you’ll come to love the way they automatically assume you’re an idiot. After they finish giving you the incredulous look and the flat, monotone answer of “why yes, it does”, push it further by asking them for examples. Be forewarned; they may become increasingly angry with you. Their anger stems not from being frustrated that you’re wasting their time with such mundane, obvious questions. It’s far more insidious than that; you’ve asked them questions that they simply can’t answer.
But what happens when the main product your organization produces IS your Mission? This phenomenon is exactly what I experienced while working with the leadership board of an arts festival organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan. DisArt is a disability arts festival (hence the name Dis + Art) that aims to “change perceptions about disability, one work of art at a time”. For DisArt, their product IS their mission and it would be disastrous if they were not able to immediately draw connections between their organization’s beliefs and what they do every day.
Now, imagine yourself as the busy CEO of an organization that manufactures and sells widgets. You’re in a tough and competitive market, you have labor issues, inventory concerns, cost and time pressures. It may be easy to dismiss this simple illustration; after all, running an organization that produces readily consumable products in a mass market is vastly different than an organization that hosts and caters to a core of typically marginalized interests (both Art and Disability), right?
For any CX or UX professional, I highly recommend paying close attention here, as this is where the fatal flaws in an organization’s strategy begin. What DisArt has at its core is exactly what every organization that has customers must adhere to; a deep understanding of how emotion and context stimulate meaningful conversations and how these conversations are the bridge in understanding the gap between expectation and experience. For our CEO in the widget business, what his customers expect and what they experience are emotionally connected. What he’s quickly deprioritized in his mind will eventually destroy his business.
Let’s reverse-engineer this a bit further. What DisArt is uniquely familiar with are the challenges that people with physical or cognitive disabilities face on a daily basis; the things most folks take for granted are more than friction points and gaps in the world of developmental and functional difference, they are enormous personal hurdles. What they also have as core ability is to understand art through the experience of the artist. Both abilities revolve around a drive to understand the complex identities of people around them.
“Because it’s a unique, multi-sensory form of knowledge, art can allow us to gain an understanding beyond our own immediate experience, that is, to know the world through the perceptions of another.”
For DisArt, understanding what people say, how they feel, and what they think, comes as second nature and is first nature in criticality. The conversation is always more important than the (art)ifact. For our imaginary CEO, his focus was on the more readily measurable, quantitative aspects of his business and less on the emotional or subjective aspects. What we as design professionals (who are keen to understand the voice of the customer) must take away from this is that emotion and conversation are more than simply the foundational elements of Design Thinking; they are in fact, the keys to being able to produce a well-informed and satisfying brief for any client who wishes to produce products and services that truly satisfy an unarticulated need.
As big data grows and increases its forensic mastery at anticipating future consumer behavior, little data (I categorize the emotional and experiential side of a product or service interaction as little data) quietly increases its importance relating to the quality of that consumer behavior. Big data will continually improve the efficiency of the human condition but it will forever struggle to improve the effectiveness of that condition. In order to balance the gravitational pull of the necessary but insufficient Big Data influence, we must take the time (as the leadership board of DisArt did) from a personal, organizational, and business objective vantage point; to evaluate the very core of our businesses. The core of undeniable and non-negotiable values that propel us, the aspirational and visionary principles that compose our mission and remind us of why we exist as an organization, the boldness to state our vision of what that all looks like at specific points in time. All of this is done being mindful that words without correlated actions are worse than having no words at all.
Here’s a nifty trick to help guide your questioning next time you decide to challenge a senior leader on the efficacy of their Values, Mission, and Vision statements; question your subject like DisArt does in their personal efforts – position your questions in four corners of importance:
- Do your values lead to strong connections? Do they build timeless relationships and meaningful communication?
- Do your values and mission offer confidence in the future? Do they offer glimpses of stability and predictability in their culture now and into the future?
- Is there something different and exciting that points at innovation and creativity in this discussion?
- Does the mission give you enough leverage that you can confront and change the thinking of a community; creating passionate converts to this new sticky way of thinking?
DisArt is committed to “changing the world, one work of art at a time” and their four points of reference that come from the benchmark of their organization are assurances that the goal will be met. What legacy will your organization leave?