Translating mission into practice

It starts with language, persistence and patience.

Over coffee this past Friday with one of the founders of The Talking Farm I found myself repeating this point-of-view as we were discussing what it would take to make a state-wide change toward more sustainable practices in growing, processing, distributing and consuming food.

There are of course many skills and capabilities that contribute to an entrepreneur’s or leader’s ability to successfully translate mission into practice (“practice” meaning what people actually do — and changing practices to achieve some new desirable outcome is usually the object of the mission). But there is a line of thinking in the study of learning and organizational change that language, persistence and patience pay off for some very good reasons.

Take the example of a very successful, mission-oriented community bank. In his narrative of the bank’s success in actually delivering on its mission, one of the founders told me how they consistently pressed to follow the simple guideline of “every loan we make must have a community development benefit.” The language is clear. It’s not some loans, it’s every loan. And the judgment of success rests primarily on community benefit.

This guideline did not eliminate or undermine the importance of other attributes of successful loans (acceptable risk, profitability, regulatory compliance, etc.). What the guideline did was set up a “both/and” challenge to the bank’s staff — at the practice level (what they did day-to-day). We need to write really good loans that also have a community development payoff.

So part one of the success was doing a good job of translating mission (“successful socially conscious community bank”) into a practice that can begin to impact individual’s mental models of good day-to-day practice. Part two was the persistence and patience. What many leaders often fail to adequately grasp is that change doesn’t happen when the leaders “get it” and have figured out the new way of thinking and doing; change happens when the organization gets it. The bigger the organization (or system) you are trying to change, the more patience you need to allow the organization to learn and accept new practices.

The study of learning and organizational change provides one point-of-view on the logic behind this. I’d argue it this way. “Practice” — what we actually do to get something done — is based in large part on people’s mental models of the activity. If you want a banker to change their way of thinking about loans from being primarily about “make the most money” or “make it the lowest risk” to “achieve community benefit” the you need to help each individual banker adapt that new way of thinking into their own existing mental model. That’s both an individual and social process; people develop meaning and understanding in the context of the social nature of practice. Banker A goes to Banker B and says, “hey, I’ve got this loan I’m looking at…do you think it meets the mark for community benefit?” A conversation happens. Meaning develops.

And all of this takes time. It seems that effective leaders are those who know how to develop guidelines that help frame these conversations and practiced-based interactions around the right topics. But they also know they need to stick with it; reinforce the development of meaning that fits with the mission by constantly challenging people to think and develop their own expertise in the new practices.

For me, the test of whether all of this is working is whether the organization is taking the leader’s guidelines and doing something with it in practice that is both positive and something that the leader never would have envisioned on their own.