Mission: Engage Talent

We hear lots about companies laboring over their mission statements, which often end up being encased behind glass, hung on walls and getting steadily ignored like a porcelain doll on the mantle. Fortunately for believers in mission statements, this is not always the case. There are some strong ever-present mission statements out there like Amazon’s" “Our vision is to be earth's most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” Or the often quoted mission statement of Apple: “Apple is committed to bringing the best personal computing experience to students, educators, creative professionals and consumers around the world through its innovative hardware, software and Internet offerings.”

Similar labor goes into defining a company's values and culture. To us, this effort is valid and worthwhile for any business, regardless of whether or not you have a defined mission statement. At Big Spaceship, we believe the essential ingredients that make up a company's DNA are its values, which stay constant; its culture, which is the cornerstone of attracting talent and inspiring great work; and finally its purpose, which plays an essential role as the steady compass for navigating the course of the company's growth. These topics are core to our conversations with new talent and prospective clients. They clearly state what we are about and what we believe in.

With our interest in behavioral dynamics and our proximity to the ever-evolving digital landscape, we considered whether these ingredients were sufficient enough to guide the direction of the company on a day-to-day basis. They work well in delivering the guardrails that support all decisions made on any engagement (values); they provide a sense of who we are as a company (culture); and they provide a long-term vision for the company (purpose), but we would argue they do not necessarily set the course for day-to-day achievement. We wanted something that could work at the company level but also at the team and individual level--defined by them and answered by them.

The answer came down to a simple question: What do we want to do?

The question has to be grounded in the realities of the business we’re in or we will end up deviating from our purpose. It also needs to be grounded in the opportunities that exist. We identified three core elements that need to work together to optimize our engagement in this exercise: 1. Our expertise, including the stretch capability of our talent; 2. Perceived needs that exist in market, which should not be limited to what’s been already identified by the clients; 3. Finally, what the desired outcome would be.

Looking at the realities of our business, we agreed on what we do well--creating connected experiences by inventing new products, platforms, and services. Then we looked at areas where we are collectively inspired to further succeed. For example, we hear from companies often about how they are constrained by their business verticals. There’s no cross pollination of ideas or opportunities. Digital can unlock these constraints by approaching the task from the perspective of what behaviors we want to affect and creating platforms that can pull from multiple verticals.

When applying this thinking to what we want to do, we came to understand that in addition to making more useful digital platforms and engagements for our clients, there was a huge opportunity to focus on making what clients already own more useful. We realized there was an opportunity to further ignite the kind of work we did for Google with What Do You Love?, which brought users deeper engagement and utility from the full suite of Google products that was already available to them.

During our assessment, we agreed that we also thrive on developing intellectual property. We have a pretty successful record in this area, including The Most Awesomest Thing Ever and Taco Finder. However, surprisingly, we never put a business plan in place to set up an IP practice, one that would include financial performance as a measurement of success. In 2012, we are devoting full days to ideation, full teams to executing the strongest ideas, and more incentives for generating new revenue streams for the business--and our teams are already responding with brilliant ideas.

So how do you really engage your talent in the direction of the company?

1. Tell them what the company wants to do and give them a sense of immediate aims, not just macro-level ideals.

2. Ask the same question at the team and individual level for each project they work on--for us, these are not project goals, they are team and individual aspirations that can be at the level of new learning, such as introducing new code, or developing animation.

3. Add these individual goals to a team KPI dashboard, which gets assessed at the end of each project as key measures of the team’s success.

4. Balance talent goals and margin goals when evaluating the business’ success.

5. Keep talent enriched and incentivized toward the aims of the business.

So to conclude, start by defining your company's values and making them ones that your talent can lean against. For example, one key value stated to our teams is that they produce exceptional work. They know that no matter the project, whether it’s a deep level strategic and build engagement for a large digital ecosystem or the development of a simple app, what goes out the door has to be exceptional. Keep culture constant by capturing what yours is and by considering how new talent coming in and new business aims will fit or augment the culture of the company. State the company purpose so that it is clearly understood. If you don't have one in place, or at least an articulation of it, then stop debating your mission statement and apply the mentorship Aristotle applied to vocation--"Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation”--or in this case, purpose.

These three elements act as the foundation of your business. Then use the question--What do we want to do?--to align your company and talent to lean into the business you want to be now and in the near future.

--Alasdair Lloyd-Jones is the COO of Big Spaceship, one of Fast Company's 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2012. 

[Image: Flickr user Kristen Ankiewicz]

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