Writing Ends – a discussion of the syntax

Articulating Ends for your organization is a powerful tool of leadership. To be effective the members of the board will have to become skilled in the effective use of the language of Ends. [If you don’t see the rest of this article, click the title…]

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When you discover the creative significance of Ends — causing a future that does not yet exist to materialize — you may find the concept of Ends to be useful when you are in any leadership role (not just for your board).

Our culture and language generate a leadership situation that can reduce creativity among those who will do the work. We, the board, are the boss, so our employees expect us to tell them what to do.

With Policy Governance you will have to articulate your vision without instructing them how to do it; but the language to accomplish this can feel awkward. We haven’t yet adopted the familiar phrases that adequately express our missions, goals, or even simple daily objectives. In this grammar lesson, I hope you will discover how to articulate your requirements (your Ends) as nouns, not verbs.

To illustrate, here is a common situation. I arrange an appointment with someone in their factory. It’s in an unfamiliar part of town and I ask for the address. The response is usually something like this, “Oh, you’ll be coming from the north; so you drive down Main Street past the shopping mall, go two traffic lights and turn right, then…” I politely explain that I have a map. All I need is the address and the nearest cross street.

I asked for a place, and I was told what to do. What if I were not coming from the north? What if I didn’t expect to be in my car because I was going to be dropped off by a helicopter? My point is that if I’m told what I have to do, I must follow that single pipeline of instructions or become lost. I do not have the freedom to solve the problem my own way.

With Policy Governance, the board describes the needed result, and the staff figure out how to produce it.

A vision of my objective

Notice that when I’m given the address, and maybe a description of the destination, there are no verbs. What I receive is a clear vision of my objective. I know that if I am not at that place, and at the specified time, I have failed. Since I’m the one who is accountable for showing up, why shouldn’t I be responsible for choosing how I get there?

Look at most mission statements, or project objectives. You’ll most likely see a list of actions to be taken: “To develop…,” “to supply…,” “to assist…,” “to build…,” etc. Verbs! The assumption is that if the actions are successfully completed, the goal will be achieved. Often that’s true, but there are three disadvantages to this form of expression.

3 disadvantages to objectives as verbs

  1. The real objective isn’t described, only the effort expected to achieve the objective. This results in a lack of clarity of purpose, and the associated lost opportunities for creativity by the people who will do the work. If my objective is to paint (a verb) the wall white, it’s true that when I meet the objective I will have a white wall. Unfortunately, the real objective: the white wall, is merely implied by this objective. So the objective focuses on painting, not a white wall. If, instead, the objective is stated as a smooth white wall (a noun modified with a couple of adjectives) the objective is clear and the associated thought process lets us consider the quality of the objective. Any discussion will involve such things as whether “white” and “smooth” are really necessary–or even if a wall is required. A smooth white wall is the required result (the End). The strategy is to paint the wall white.
  2. The objective demands one specified solution, in this case: painting. The people who will do the work will focus their thinking on of the variety of paints, and conditions suitable for painting, because they know they’re accountable only for painting. If, instead, they were responsible for a smooth white wall, they may decide that it can be constructed of smooth white material that never needs painting.
  3. The people doing the work are held accountable for the effort expended, not for the results. It’s no wonder that employees are often more interested in what they’re supposed to be doing than what they’re accomplishing. This focus results in lots of busywork, but seldom truly innovative results. I see many non-profits doing many worthy things, but I know that no one is truly committed to solving the problem the organization was created to address.

When we have to be clear about real objectives rather than instructing the staff what to do, our job is often much harder. Now we have to articulate something that seems obvious to us, but is grammatically strange.

Many of us became leaders because we demonstrated that we know what to do. In our mind, we think we can see the job that needs to be done. And, of course, our way is the only way or the best way. So, when we issue marching orders, the job may be done, but the doers may not really understand why they are doing it. And they don’t have the opportunity to develop their own novel approach. You have insisted that your way is the only way.

As soon as we are clear about a problem, everyone wants to be the person who thinks of a clever solution. And solutions are almost always something that somebody does (verbs). As we leap from the problem to the solution, we are missing a step in the creative process. And because of our culture and our language, this is hard to explain, let alone understand and act on it.

Your problem (as you have stated it) recognizes a need or a deficiency — and maybe an opportunity. If you are to address it, somehow you’re going to make the world a better place. Before you commit to an action plan, express that vision in words that you can use to hold your team accountable.

Nouns are visionary
when they describe something that does not yet exist

The key words will be nouns. This is why you say, “I think we need a smooth white wall,” instead of “paint the wall white.” The smooth white wall is visionary — it doesn’t yet exist.

As your board explores the need your organization should fill, see if you can ask them to suggest the vision. Ask them, “What is needed here?” not, “What do we need to do?”

The first time someone encounters this language, it sounds as if we are just playing with syntax, and are saying the same thing. Please think about it. As this idea sinks in, you will discover that you are surrounded by high-sounding, but meaningless objectives. Verbs are the tip-off.

Look at the wording used by most organizations. When you read the mission and purpose you discover that the organization is, “to help,” “to promote,” “to foster;” and you will find yourself realizing that those are worthy things to do. But now you will wonder why is the organization doing that? Why isn’t the real purpose expressed instead of the actions? It will teach you to question such purposes, and to ask, “Why?”

As a board member (or leader in any context), when you find yourself wanting to prescribe a task, ask yourself, “Why do I want this done?” I hope the answer will be something like, “We need a smooth white wall.”

Your Own Mission

Look at your organization’s mission and objectives. Do you see verbs? Is your organization being held accountable for work (lots of effort) or for actually accomplishing something?

Your task here will be to state the vision, and not prescribe actions.

When writing Ends you will be stating the difference or benefit that should occur as a result of the work of your organization, for whom there is benefit, and at what cost (all nouns). With long- and short-term Ends like this, you’ll be holding your staff accountable for results, not just hard work.

When you use nouns for your mission, goals, purposes and objectives, some of the traditional distinctions among those words vanish. I know that it’s often taught that a goal is the destination or vision and the objectives are the measurable milestones to reach the goals. With Policy Governance there is no distinction between goals and objectives. Those words are obsolete, and you are better not to confuse the conversation by using them.

If you must use the word mission, it is your overarching Ends policy. Unlike traditional mission statements, it may be less poetic, it contains no description of the actions to achieve the results; but it does articulate what your organization is expected to achieve.

Frankly, your old vision statements, and mission statements are almost always inadequate as a statement of Ends, regardless of how much work went into crafting them. They were never written with the intention of holding people accountable for achieving them.

Your Ends are expected to produce a real difference in the community, and you will be holding your staff accountable for those results. Your credibility and your head-of-staff’s job depends on it.

Your Ends are powerful tools that will focus the entire resources of your organization.

© 2007 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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