Simple but Not Easy

Thank you, Maddie Grant, for posting a thoughtful response to my "Clarity is Hard Work" post. Everyone please go read it if you haven't already. As expected, her focus is on how to "just get crackin." She provides a random example of an association's mission statement and then boils it down to the "core business proposition" and uses that to illuminate how the association can begin to develop a social media strategy. She provides simple instructions for how you can do the same with your organization and its mission.

So as much as Maddie and I push back against each other, let's be perfectly clear: we completely agree. I agree that this process is not that complicated and that nearly all association professionals have an intuitive sense of what their organization is about. I agree that waiting until the powers that be deliver us some clarity is not particularly the right thing to do. I agree we can start now. I agree we are capable of moving forward with what we have.

But I still think it's harder than Maddie thinks. She says specifically that it's not that complicated--and that's the rub. It may be simple instead of complicated, but there is a difference between simple and easy. Maddie did a great job of distilling down ISTE's mission statement into a core business proposition, but I think it's a bit deceiving. 

First, I think Maddie is better than most at distilling things down. I'm not sure everyone can take a lofty mission statement and pull out the essence so easily.

Second, it's never enough for one person to distill the essence. This is an organization we're talking about, therefore the clarity has to be shared among a group of people, rather than clarity within one individual's head.

That is the real hard part that I'm talking about: shared understanding. Shared understanding is hard work, particularly when it's about something important, like our organization's mission. In many organizations we would rather skip the hard work of shared understanding, or we think we can achieve it through wordsmithing. Or our frustration leads us to settle for the lowest common denominator (hence all the bad mission statements). 

So does this change Maddie's advice? I don't think so. You should still get clear in your head and write up something for the social media team in your organization. But do make sure that people on that team are willing to challenge what you came up with, because it is through that conflict that are likely to achieve shared understanding.

And as soon as you get that clarity and start working, expect everything to change. Expect that someone higher up will challenge your distillation of the mission statement. Embrace that as an opportunity to further refine and clarify (rather than meeting it with an exasperated "they don't get it" reaction). Expect to discover things like your social media efforts don't support all parts of your mission equally, so you'll have to revise your social media purpose statement. Expect that after you get into it, you'll discover that different people on your social media team understood that purpose statement differently and you'll have to resolve those conflicts.

It's not that complicated and it shouldn't prevent you from getting started immediately, but it's still hard work, which makes sense, because it's important.

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  1. 16.11.2009 at 9:37 am

    You are absolutely right that shared understanding is the bottom line of strategy work. I agree with you, too, that it is hard work AND that it is essential to undertake. Never mind the social media context, associations have always been distributed leadership organizations (vs., for example, for-profit companies). That, I believe, is why so many associations have crummy mission statements. It is a lot harder to resolve different perspectives into a shared understanding than it is to throw together pabulum that all can accept (and later criticize for being worse than useless). This has been true for associations for a long time.
    In order to succeed, however, some degree of focus is necessary. Somehow, the leaders and stakeholders must be brought into the “conversation” and find common ground to proclaim to their world. I think that social media can help with this process.
    Thanks to you and Maddie for providing some great advice to those of us working to assemble social media strategy.

  2. 16.11.2009 at 4:59 pm

    Alright, alright, I fold 🙂
    I totally agree with Bob too, about distributed leadership leading to lack of leadership (essentially). I would say this appears not just in the writing of pointless catch-all mission statements, but also in hundreds of other ways, like in program-creep (adding new programs without ever letting go of any old ones), and in trying to be everything to everyone… It’s fascinating to me that social media is forcing us to develop capacity inside our organizations for an entirely new kind of distributed leadership: systems thinking.
    I think the beauty of using middle-level leadership to figure out these new ways of working and purpose-driven communication internally, within a construct like setting up an interdepartmental social media team, is that if it works, it has implications for the entire system. How totally awesome would it be to start with a group writing up a statement of purpose for their social media efforts… and to end up with a new, much clearer and simpler mission statement which describes the core value of the organization as a whole?

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