This is part 2 of The Organizational Clarity Series. We encourage you to start with an introduction to the idea in part 1, HERE.

“The only truly reliable source of stability is a strong inner core and the willingness to change and adapt everything except that core.” ―Jim Collins, Built to Last

Striving for excellence is not the same thing as merely avoiding failure. All too often, our teams and organizations spend too much effort on avoiding failure, reacting to changing circumstances, simply managing the day-to-day minutia of routine and urgent work. These are not the reasons we were inspired to join our organization in the first place.

Contrary to what we are so used to seeing, we should not first respond to our changing environment by asking, “How should we change?” Instead, we must default to the questions of, “Why do we exist and what do we stand for?” These are the ideals that give us purpose and direction, regardless of circumstances, and should rarely change (if ever).

To enable our organizations to actually know why we exist and what we stand for, leaders must create clarity around those ideas; we must codify our organization’s essential core. This is the first of three steps in creating organizational clarity. In this part of the series, we explore what an organizational “core” is, why it’s important to define, and how we can approach creating it for our team.

What is an Essential Core?

We see our organization’s essential core as a defined ideology of our enduring purpose, values & characteristics, and beliefs that gives stakeholders a mental and emotional structure to understand who we are, what we do, why we do it, and why it’s important. Creating this enables everyone to hang their experiences, work, and feelings from this structure each and every day.

Every organization’s core is (and must) be different. They must reveal the unique, critical parts of our team’s identity and culture. Discovering our essential core should feel more like unearthing a rare, valuable artifact at an archeological excavation instead of a space exploration launch for some new unknown. So, while there is no right structure for our team’s core, there are common dynamics that we should consider.

First, it’s helpful to consider common components that can make up our core. We should not use all of them and there is no right combination. Again, this must speak to the uniqueness of your team. This is not an exhaustive list and there are viable components beyond these (think of Johnson & Johnson’s Credo), but these below options are the most common we see across organizations and industries:

  • Vision Statement: An inspirational statement of an idealistic future that we will always strive for, but will never actually achieve. At its most basic, this is our enduring purpose. Think of the North Star – we can walk to follow it our entire life, but will never actually reach it. This inspires sustainable commitment for our team…forever.
  • Mission Statement: Though it can be used in myriad ways, a mission statement answers our team’s five basic W’s – who we are, what we do (service or product), when & where we do (can a time-bound deadline), a more limited why (as compared to vision), and usually how.
  • Values: Our espoused values (goal is to limit to 3-5) define what drives our individual and collective behaviors, what norms we accept (and don’t), and the “best” way to live. These give a framework and boundaries for how our people behave and what we believe.
  • Priorities: Leveraging these can be a way to emphasize current efforts based on the team’s needs, environment challenges, and focus personnel actions. These tend to be temporary (rarely enduring), but often work well for public service organizations like government agencies, the military, and emergency services.
  • Goals: Defined metrics to achieve so to focus efforts, resources, and attention. Within an essential core framework, we do not believe goals should be temporary, short-term small wins, but “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals” (BHAGs) as Jim Collins describes them in Built to Last.

It is also important to recognize that our core communicates to a variety of organizational stakeholders that we categorize into two buckets: external and internal. Within this model, imagine an iceberg with a visible portion above the waterline and another below it. The whole iceberg is the entirety of our core (all of the components we elect to leverage), but the different portions focus on different stakeholders. The iceberg above the waterline focuses on our external audience outside of our team; this can be customers, investors, and so on. Of the component options listed above, things like a vision, mission, and values can help educate and generate interest in our brand. However, the components below the waterline of the iceberg communicate internally to our team. This educates them of our “big picture,” ultimately to inspire and empower them for daily action in support of that greater why. It gives structure and focus for every role, every day. These can be our vision statement (yes, it can communicate externally and internally), values, priorities, and goals. So, as we generate thinking around our team’s essential core, keep in mind all of our stakeholders and how we are informing all of them clearly, logically, and emotionally.

Lastly, when considering our team’s essential core, we must ensure they follow several important dynamics. The core and our components must be:

  • Authentic: Again, this is an archeological excavation of our team, not some nebulous launch into an unknown space. If our core does not resonate with our people, is not shared, and cannot connect to everything our people experience and do (and what we provide), it will fall on deaf ears and uninterested hearts. Our core is not legalistic jargon nor some cookie-cutter language that we pay to outsource for someone to make for us. This is our identity, our culture, our team, and our life-long mission.
  • Exciting: What is going to keep everyone inspired and committed through the challenges of failure, competition, and day-to-day urgencies? Why commit to this rather than merely packing up, closing the team, and selling it to someone else? This must be something that people can be excited about when they wake up each day.
  • Bold & Impactful: If it doesn’t scare you a little bit, it won’t stay on others’ minds longer than a few seconds. Why should people commit their money (customers), their careers, and tireless effort to this?
  • Memorable: If it cannot resonate with the most junior member of your team, it won’t matter. If you cannot share it in a passionate way in a short elevator pitch, it won’t matter. If it isn’t catchy or doesn’t stick, it won’t matter. When considering the noise and competition for attention in our lives each day, why should people care about your team? How will they remember you amidst all the other noise each day?

Why Creating This is Important

With some education around what our essential core is, let’s reinforce why going through the effort of creating this is important. A clear, authentic, exciting, bold, and memorable core accomplishes many things for our team’s stakeholders:

  • Defines Purpose & Direction: We think of a ship metaphor – what determines the direction our ship must face and how far we must travel on that path? We must know, our people must know, and we all need to understand why. Our core informs our team’s purpose & direction.
  • Becomes an Identity to Align to & Connect With: If you were passionate about hamburgers and wanted to join a famed fast-food team to fulfill your passion, what company should you join between McDonalds, Burger King, Arby’s, etc.? Each brand has a unique identity and culture that may attract you (or not). Our core codifies the aspects of our team’s identity and the reasons our external and internal stakeholders join.
  • Inspires Action: People don’t work day-to-day in the team’s big picture, but in the mirky details of routine work. Our core helps connect the big picture to what everyone does each day. It also informs and empowers their actions.
  • Cultivates Viability of Our Team: A team centered around a defined, essential core will be able to sustain success and endure longer than a team not clear on purpose, who simply responds to its routinely changing environment. A core prepares us for the long-haul regardless of changes and challenges.
  • Helps Distinguish Important vs. Urgent: As Collins asserts in Built to Last, this essential core is not the most important thing – it’s the only thing. If the decision or issue at hand doesn’t help achieve our essential core, it doesn’t matter.

How to Approach Creating Our Unique Core

Unfortunately, we cannot give your team some simple 10-step process to follow to create your core within a day. The reality is – this takes a lot of work, re-work, and time. There is no way around it. So, we encourage you and your people to not rush this process or merely accept the first draft of ideas after one day.

Below are several questions that can help inspire high-quality conversation around your core. We believe that by discussing several or all of these, you can begin to achieve clarity around impactful ideas, trends, and things that excite multiple people on your team. We also think this should be an iterative process involving lots of brainstorming on a whiteboard with key stakeholders on your team. These stakeholders can be a combination of the team’s leadership and informal leaders at different levels.

  • Why do we exist? What problem do we solve and who do we solve it for?
  • What do we stand for & rally around?
  • What defines the ideal (insert team brand) teammate?
  • What is most important for our team and people?
  • What is going to truly matter in 1 year from now? 5? 10? 100?

Ultimately, as you address these questions, apply the “5 Whys” framework. After you answer a question, ask why that. Then try to answer that question. Then ask why again. This doesn’t have to occur 5 times, but you get the point. You may get to a core idea in 2-3 iterations, or it may take more than 5. But apply this process to boil down abstract, nebulous, or vague ideas to truly important core ideologies.

Helpful Frameworks & Resources

Again, this series does not intend to provide you a defined guide or framework to write your essential core. We believe these ideas are too unique to apply seemingly universal models. However, there are a few frameworks that have served to inform our thinking on the concept of an organizational core and the process of creating it. We encourage you and your team’s leaders to explore these helpful resources as you begin this important journey!

“If we believe that we’re working just for another company, then we’re going to be like another company. We have got to have a concept that [IBM] is special. Once you get that concept, it’s very easy to give the amount of drive to work toward making it continue to be true.” ―Thomas Watson, Sr., IBM: A Special Company essay

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