This past week I interacted with two very different organizations, an airline and a college, but they had something in common – a strong sense of mission. The airline was Southwest Airlines, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The Southwest mission says the airline is dedicated to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride and Company Spirit. Nowhere in that statement does it list the things needed to run an airline or even fly an airplane, but it sets a very clear tone. It also sets the mark for customer service and employee behavior. That mark leads to phenomenal stories of staff going above and beyond to help customers. That mark leaves Southwest with one of the best safety records in the industry even though safety is never mentioned in the mission statement. Neither are turnaround time, timely-departures, etc., all of which are ways in which Southwest excels.
I traveled on Southwest to work with the staff at a college in the south. I interviewed 16 people and read the survey results from about 40. In this economic environment, this small college is facing financial challenges severe enough that the division I was working with has cut 10 positions in the last year or so, resulting in several people working the equivalent of 2 or more jobs. And yet, while people ,of course, identified staffing as an area of concern, no one was complaining about it. One might expect the morale to be low, and people certainly are feeling anxiety, but pride was evident as they talked about their work and their college. I believe this was due to everyone having a clear sense of the mission. When I asked what should never be changed, no one repeated the mission word for word, but all of them talked about the same values and ideals – they have clarity and congruence in mission.
What I found interesting about these two organizations is the impact of this mission clarity on individual and organizational behavior. A well thought-out mission statement defines the boundaries for decision-making and program-development: in other words, a well-understood mission opens the possibility for creativity by the members of the organization. The amazing customer service stories from Southwest are possible because the employees understand the mission and know they not only have organizational space to be creative, they are encouraged to find the best way to make things right. In this college I visited, people know that times are tight, but they know what is important in this organization and within those boundaries they are being wonderfully creative in finding ways to create programs and solve problems that support the college’s purpose.
If you find yourself wondering why your organization isn’t more creative, perhaps it’s worth taking a step back to look at the mission. Do people understand it? Do organizational policy and decision making follow the mission? People who know they are in sync with the organizational mission will feel more comfortable trying new ideas in part because there is less risk that they will move outside the organizational tolerances. Supervisors will be more comfortable with staff initiative because they are confident people understand the necessary boundaries. What will members of your organization say if they were asked about their mission? I suspect those answers will tell you something important about organizational creativity.