Intent: From “Seat at the Table” to “Hand on the Wheel”

A few weeks ago, I uncorked an entry on CommScrum which proposed yet another challenge to status quo thinking about the drivers of business performance.

For too long, in my view, business thinking, and particularly thinking within business, has seen only financial results (how much money you made) and operational results (how many widgets you made) as the sole measure of organizational success.

To be sure, I have a number of problems with these views in and of themselves—but what I have found most missing is that that in looking at financial and operational results as sole valid measures of organizational performance, the void such an analysis leaves is gaping and obvious.  “’Why?’, ‘What for?’, ‘So that…’” Or, in other words, the fulfillment of some kind of explicit or implicit intent which provided sufficient direction to elicit the performance required to achieve those results.

I was intrigued by the response my piece received on CommScrum—sufficiently to move the party over to my own pied a terre and try to raise the ante a bit.

In identifying “intent”—a consciously or unconsciously addressed set of values, goals, aspirations and/or purposes–as a driver of organizational performance, it becomes possible to analyse, sharpen, or redirect performance and the attendant resources required to drive performance.

It becomes easier to create resource and people management systems that reflect performance and accountability against actual organizational intent, rather than vague notions of good practice or civic or commercial virtue.

It also becomes easier to assess the influence of intent on organisational effectiveness against competitors in the same sector—the extent to which customers are buying an organisation’s intent as well as its dog food.

Whether one believes that intent is either stated or unstated, recognizing it as one of the three core drivers of business performance doesn’t act make it “the answer” or “a silver bullet.”  But by distinguishing it, and defining it as a consciously or unconsciously addressed set of values, goals, aspirations and/or purposes, allows it to be addressed, measured, influenced, and–if necessary—sharpened, turbocharged and unleashed.

For those of us who work in the realm of organizational intent—really any of us who work outside of narrow financial and operational functions, or, in some cases, within those functions but with some discretion about how to align those functions with the overall desires of the organisation as they understand them, this is revelatory.  It means that not only can we make a difference in the way our organisations perform, it means that we can often make the difference.

One thing that emerged in the CommScrum debate was a rather heavy attack on the use of the word “intent” to describe the combination of a core “raison d’etre” with associated promises, principles and practices designed to direct the use of the organisation’s resources in a common, productive direction.  Some suggested a mix of terms, others said it was all about “alignment”.

Chiropractors think health is all about “alignment”—but alignment for its own sake makes no more sense than widget production for its own sake.

This is not to say that alignment (and expertise in identifying inconsistencies between intent, finance, and operations [or, more sharply, between conflicting elements of intent) is unimportant.  Creating alignment out of conflicting priorities and practices is powerful and productive.  But nine times out of ten, the best solution to choose is the one that produces the results most consistent with organisational intent rather than the one producing the easiest alignment.

More importantly—particularly for communication and people professionals, a recognition of the centrality of intent as a core driver of business performance is by definition a recognition of our own role at the centre of the business, with direct responsibility for creating value.  (This is also where the intent discussion becomes tightly aligned with the Stockholm Accords, in that the Accords also acknowledge the central role of communication as a driver of organisational performance and value).

As communicators in particular, our job, fundamentally, becomes one of analyzing and discerning business intent, and in creating the most favorable conditions for that intent to be fulfilled.  Those conditions could be external (making the commercial or press environment more favorable) or internal (making intent better understood so that it can better drive improvements in such areas as planning, logistics or customer service).

Will that change our jobs?  I would hope in the same way that Columbus’s trip across the Atlantic did—in reshaping our own perspectives as well as those of whom we work with.  After all, for a profession that has spent decades calling for a “seat at the table”, I would hope the recognition that we actually have a hand on the wheel will call us to kick things up a few gears.

The original CommScrum post can be found here: http://commscrum.wordpress.com/2010/09/03/the-age-of-intent/

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4 Comments

  1. Yes! I love this!

    By the way, the lean community uses the word “purpose” instead of “intent.” I’m not going to split hairs on terminology though. Whether we talk about intent or purpose, we need to talk about the meaning of what we’re doing to drive success. (Dan Pink addresses this in his wonderful book “Drive” about motivation.)

    I also love your suggestion to get away from being at the table and instead put our hands on the wheel driving performance and change. As those of us who have always been activists in organizations know, those who have their hands on the pens and keyboards can influence others.

    Reply
    • Well, Liz, it loves you too.

      On the terminology, thanks for being generous about it. I think there’s not enough distance between “purpose” and “intent” to get overly exorcised about, and only chose intent because it was devoid of connections with religious self-help books like “A Purpose-Driven Life.” Intent is more motivation-agnostic, as am I.

      But where this will play out is in the arena of us having a hand on the wheel as opposed to seeking a seat at the table. Communicators and the people folks earn our living by understanding intent and creating pathways to act in line with that intent. Sometimes, we even help shape the intent, and sometimes, even when involved “after the fact” we intervene in ways that bring intent to life even after attempted drownings in process, jargon or cynical double-talk.

      Are we the only ones with our hands on the wheel? No, not by a long shot. But we are part of the team. We score the goals some time, and we prevent some of them from being scored as well. Perhaps with a broader realisation that this is the case, we can emerge much more powerfully and effectively.

      Best from Copenhagen,

      Mike

      Reply
  2. Mike, maybe I’ve woken on the wrong side of the bed this morning, but I can’t help thinking that “intent” is still a weigh station on the road to something. At KeyCorp, during a landmark branding campaign (led by uber-guru of branding Steve Cone), we spent an incredible amount of time on the vision, mission and values of our organization. Establishing our intentions for the future, the means by which we would get there and the operating emotional values that would guide that effort.

    A year later, we were cutting staff, combining functions and trying to squeeze our efficiency ratio down by ten points.

    The glib observation was that we got so wound up in our strategic underwear that we lost focus on the reality that our organization was going to live or die based on its attainment of operational and financial goals. Our vision, therefore, was that we’d still be around in five years (though we painted a pretty picture of how wonderful we’d be at that time); our mission was to increase market share in the affluent segment (not be all things to all people); our values? Well, let’s just say some areas took them more seriously than others, but as the hammer fell again and again (35,000 employees in 1997, 15,000 in 2010), no one really wanted to talk about them.

    You know I’m a strategy guy, and you can’t have a strategy without a clear understanding of the specific purpose (or intent) of your business. But it’s still a target you try to hit, not necessarily a finger drawing back your bow.

    Explore your intent ideas fully, I encourage you — maybe in the form of a white paper with some research included. Let’s see where it takes us, but I’d be cautious about seeing intent as a destination rather than a road.

    Sean
    @commammo

    Reply
    • The distinction between destination and road is more subtle than it appears, and I say that not only because I’m living in my fourth foreign country and have yet to truly find a “destination” in my own world. It’s all a question of perspective–whether our involvement in change is decisive, influential or merely instrumental; whether by changing a speech or a sub-clause do we change The Script.

      To be sure, the clearest role of communicators, like it or not, is when there is a gap between stated purpose and actual purpose, and the second is when a change of purpose seems sudden or arbitrary. But even acting in a purely defensive role, we often shape the outcome, either by buying time or helping push a hard reset of expectations.

      Of course, being on the front end is more fun and illustrates the intent-as-driver paradigm more easily.

      As for research and investigation, you know me. I post my hypotheses, crowd-source whatever research I can get my hands on, I run ideas up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes and then see what it makes sense to do. I think the idea of intent-as-driver has particular merit as it addresses the need of communicators to generate a perception of value-creative now, rather than waiting for the Corporate Leadership Council to provide much-awaited validation for a small fee in 2017. And to be fair, the basis thesis about organisations driven by conscious, consistent intent formed the bulk of Collins and Porras’ Built to Last. This isn’t really new–only its expression and the connection with the central role of communicators for integrating intent with commercial and financial activity.

      Best from Copenhagen,

      Mike

      Reply

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