How a corporate mission inspires digital transformation

Matthijs van de Peppel

NRC Media

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Xavier van Leeuwe

Mediahuis Nederland

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

During the storm of disruption in the media business, we could feel in our bones that one effect of disruption outweighed all others: uncertainty.

Established businesses in the fast-changing business with successful newcomers felt discombobulated, slow, foolish, and outdated. In spite of their years of success, they felt as if their time had passed, as though they were counting down their remaining days in a care home, while the youngsters were happily and energetically sowing their oats.

A strong mission statement needs to engage every employee in a company.
A strong mission statement needs to engage every employee in a company.

It is a feeling that has a profound effect on an organisation and its employees. It leads to a slow spread of panic. As a result, an approach that has always been effective in the past may be dusted off, amplified, and used over and over. Or, an obsessive checking in on the competition starts to bubble up, and every single thing they do is imitated.

We experienced and did all these things at the media companies where we worked. Even though global attention was moving away from paper to phone screens, the marketing department at NRC (where we both worked at that time) was still run according to an outdated goal: newspaper circulation. We tried our damnedest to boost circulation figures to the max without a second thought to whether this was, in fact, the right course for the organisation.

After a while, it proved not to be. In our battle for high circulation, we reached for every possible means that increased the numbers in the short term, such as short trial subscriptions, huge gifts for new subscribers, and so on. In the long term, however, these turned out to be detrimental to the bottom line and the customer experience.

We simply could not let go of an outdated goal until we managed to reconnect with our organisation’s roots. NRC does not grace this world to distribute as much paper as possible all over the Netherlands. The mission of NRC is to help people in shaping their opinions and progress — and to be a check of those in power.

If we had been operating on that basis, we would have realised that pushing printed newspapers toward people who were not particularly interested was a fool’s errand. If the newspaper isn’t read, and the relationship with the reader is flighty at best, then we are just barely serving our mission.

On the other hand, if you do operate from a foundation of journalism, you will soon realise that the medium carrying the journalism is irrelevant. Or to quote the editor-in-chief, “None of my co-workers became a reporter with an aim of filling white paper with ink.”

We really had lost touch with the very essence of our organisation. We had lost sight of what we meant to our subscribers and to society at large. Marketing had become a cheap seduction using discounts and gifts as incentives, which had absolutely no connection to our corporate identity. It was not authentic, nor was it effective, as it happened.

We were lost and floundering and had to get back to basics: How did we get started? And, what did we offer our readers and our society?

Formulating a mission

A strong mission can form a solid foundation for bonding in an organisation, but it must be concise and strong. Mediahuis used Frank Goren’s mission management model to cut to the chase quickly.

The process starts with two rudimentary questions:

  1. What are we selling?
  2. Why should anyone buy that specifically from us?

At first glance, they may seem superficial. But the answers to these questions are often surprising. Some will mention the product (e.g., newspapers), but others will dig deeper (e.g., control of political power).

First it looks at the now, the classic “ist situation.” Then we look at ambition: What do we want to be and which organisations are examples of this? Finally, we determine where we want to be in the future — the “soll situation.”

In practice, the group follows four steps:

  1. Everyone answers the three questions individually.
  2. The group selects the answers they find best.
  3. Answers that did not receive support are removed.
  4. After joint choices have been made, summarise what’s left by writing down the organisation’s values and making a short story about what you stand for.

Make it work for teams and individuals

Having a strong sense of an organisation’s higher purpose is a solid foundation for agility and resilience. Knowing where you came from and where you are going makes it easier to decide how to react to changes in your surroundings.

However, after formulating your mission at the organisational level, you are not ready. A strong mission in itself does nothing. The level of abstraction is too high, so it does not directly help employees to shape or change their work.

For example, the daily work of an information and communications technology employee is difficult to link to a goal such as “controlling power.” That is why a mission needs to be translated to different levels in the organisation and made concrete for individuals and teams.

Simon Sinek calls a team’s mission an “embedded why.” It is the conviction of a sub-group within the larger organisation.

Sinek describes a practical step-by-step plan for the team to find its “why.” In a “why discovery workshop,” you as a team formulate your “why statement” with the following structure: “We <blank> so that <blank>.” The first element, “we <blank>,” describes the contribution made by the group. The second element “so that <blank>,” is the effect of that contribution on others.

Another way to translate a mission to lower levels is to create a goal hierarchy. This involves different layers in the organisation.

In the first session, write down the higher goals of the organisation with the management. From there, define supporting goals. Controlling power is not possible, for example, if your organisation is dependent on other institutions. And that independence is not possible if you are not financially independent. That financial independence is guaranteed when sufficient customers are recruited and retained. This brings you closer to the goals of a team — in this case, the marketing department.

You’ll see that it’s not a vertical line down but a pyramid. Each higher goal is served by multiple sub-goals. For example, controlling power also requires journalistic craftsmanship. That goal, in turn, is served by attracting talented journalists. This brings you close to the goal of the human resources department.

In subsequent meetings, you involve the teams lower down in the organisation. They also write down their goals. These can then be linked to the goals on an organisational level. Some will overlap, but you will probably also add goals, especially at the bottom of the pyramid.

With these methods, a mission statement is brought to life for employees. And there is no stronger predictor for success than employees imbued with the mission.

This blog series is based on the book The Human Touch, in which Xavier van Leeuwe and Matthijs van de Peppel share their experiences as media executives in turbulent times. They deftly applied smart data and technology, but the quantum leap lay elsewhere: in the connections between people, within and beyond their companies. 

About Xavier van Leeuwe & Matthijs van de Peppel

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