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Create an Identity

If you are like most managers in today’s organizations, you have come under the spell of “Mission Statements.” At some point in every manager’s organizational life, you have sat through the development of a mission statement.  It is clearly a rite of passage, if not part of the initiation into the practice of management.  Who has not heard, “What this organization needs is a good mission statement.” 

Mission statements have done some great things.  They have brought focus and visions that are bigger than thought possible.  They have created a sense of purpose that stretches throughout an organization.  However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  This pervasive use of mission statements is an odd thing.  If the original thought was that a mission statement differentiated successful organizations from non-successful ones, what does it mean when almost all organizations have a mission statement?  To correct this, we have begun to focus on making better mission statements.  We struggle to refine the words, debate the real values, or seek higher purpose.  We no longer have just mission statements; we now have “vision statements.”  All of this is a questionable tactic.

Mission statements can be refined too much.  Instead of being inclusive, they become exclusive.  In the effort to make mission statements clear and focused, they become narrow and constricted.  They become very understandable, but only have meaning to a few people.  They become narrower and narrower.  Fewer people truly connect with it.  It is less resilient to change.

The answer is to turn the Mission statement inside out.  Instead of creating a mission statement, organizations need to create an identity.  An identity defines the edge of something.  For any entity to have an identity there has to be a demarcation line between what it is and what it isn’t.  An identity is exactly that, an identity.  It says what you are and what you are not.  An identity that includes everything is no identity.  All of us, at a psychological level have an identity or sense of self, based on what we say we are part of and by that of which we are not part. 

This is a tougher choice than executives realize.  This means saying no.  It means intentionally giving up on certain sets of customers.  It means existing customers are compared to a standard and only those that measure up are kept.  It means turning down a potential customer because that customer does not fit within the boundaries that mark the organization’s identity.  The inability to say no is the clearest sign that the organization has no identity. 

Can an organization say no to a large potential customer, especially one with money and the willingness to pay?  One of my favorite clients at one point was actively seeking, any customer that even remotely used a product like theirs.  They were willing to turn their organization, a literal ocean liner, to visit a port with only one potential passenger, a passenger that had not even bought a ticket.  That customer would be the most expensive customer they had and the most difficult to keep happy.  Any return that was expected from that customer was lost, often with a long-term commitment to continue providing a product. 

There are at least two components to an organizational identity, two areas that need the limits clearly defined: who the customer is not and what the organization is not going to do for a customer. 

Developing an identity statement is a simple but difficult task.  Most organizations would like to operate on the mass scale.  Only a few should, such as Coke and Microsoft.  Even these companies segment their markets, which is really only creating multiple identities within the same organization.  Organizations would love to have all customers.  The allure to be big and the need for growth, make turning down, or better, turning away customers difficult to do.  Unfortunately, what they don’t realize is the amount of wasted resources that are being used to market to non-customers and then trying to make them happy.  They would be far more profitable if the same dollars were used to attract true customers.

One of the key requirements to establishing an identity is self-confidence.  It takes self-confidence to turn down a potential customer.  It takes even more self-confidence to allow employees three levels down from the chief executive to turn down non-customers.  It takes an even higher level of confidence to demand that they turn down non-customers.  Identity requires that we clearly understand our business and more importantly that we believe in our business, because we are going to act on that belief in a proactive way that will have an immediate impact, turning away non-customers.  Organizations have to believe that there is no individual customer that they have to have.  They must believe that there are enough true customers that they can make an acceptable return by gaining a fair share of them.  It takes confidence to be the person that you are.  It takes confidence for an organization to be the organization that it is. 


Lynn A. Walker, Ph.D.
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