“What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning, and why should anyone care?” —Simon Sinek, Start with Why
Why do we exist?
Humans have been asking this essential question from time immemorial, and it is an equally important query from an organizational standpoint. At inception, not-for-profits, public agencies, and private sector organizations have a mandate, a raison d’etre, tasked to them by leaders, ministers, legislation, or stakeholders. Over time, the manner in which they operate may deviate from that original intent. How do they course correct—or plot an entirely new route altogether?
A number of years ago, I facilitated sessions with a provincial workers compensation board, which included the directors, the chair of the board, and senior management. I posed the question: “What is our mandate?” In other words, why do we exist?
The chair replied, “Well, just go to the legislation. You’ll see that the reason that we exist is to protect the employer from being sued by injured employees.”
While that may have indeed been the original purpose, another member of the board said, “No, it’s about the protection of the employees. If they are injured, we need to ensure that they receive appropriate treatment and compensation.”
Someone else offered this: “The way we’re approaching our work now, the real objective is to get the injured worker back into the workforce as fast as possible.”
Three different mandates—with three very different implications for how the workers compensation board would organize, which functions it would put in place, and which strategy it would pursue.
One can envision how easy it would be for this board to devolve into chaos and factions with three different—and competing—objectives. Or it could be an ideal opportunity to ask, “In today’s and tomorrow’s world, why do we exist? Who do we serve, and how are they better off because we are here?”
The next step is to build a strategy around that response. The answer to “why” they exist becomes the key to “how” they operate.
How are people better off? It is a simple question, and the answer can lead to changes in mandate or vision and mission statement. Elections Ontario, for instance, had been a compliance-focused organization for years. The emphasis was ensuring that everyone associated with provincial elections was following the letter of the law in terms of allowable expenses, screening potential voters, making sure they had the proper documentation, and so on.
Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essensa sought to turn that mindset around and focus on ensuring that every voter who has the right to vote can vote. For instance, if a constituent has a disability, what will Elections Ontario to do provide him or her with the opportunity to vote?
Essentially, they asked the question: “Who do we serve, and how are they better off because we exist?” Their answer prompted the inclusion of assistive technology, for the first time, in the 2011 election. The tools included Braille key pads, foot pedals, and “sip-and-puff” straws for those who cannot use their hands. This enabled more people to participate, secretly and independently, without relying on others to cast their votes for them.
While not a perfect system yet, the answer to why Elections Ontario exists is guiding meaningful change on a strategic level as well as changing the operating culture dramatically. Other organizations can do well to ensure their mandates also guide action.
It is informative for organizations to check periodically with their mandate for alignment and ask, “How are people better off because we exist?” They are certainly well served by taking the next step as well: determining the strategic initiatives that should be put into place to ensure that folks are, in fact, better off—and will continue to be so in today’s and tomorrow’s world.