How often do you stop to ask why your organization exists? Agencies often forget their identity in the midst of everyday work. The answer usually lies somewhere between “providing jobs for federal employees” and “saving the world.” But that “somewhere between” is very large, and it’s easy for organizations to lose themselves in the vast possibilities of what they could be doing to further a variety of different potential missions.

Employees generally know what they are currently working on or what programs exist in their immediate proximity. However, these activities only explain what an organization does – not why it exists. The why goes deeper than simple legislative or executive mandates. In fact, an organization’s original mandate, its original why, has likely morphed over time.

Why ask why?

Imagine an organization with an original mission to feed the hungry. Over time, its major programs have morphed to various types of assistance for the needy, including the provision of clothing, shelter, and children’s toys. The organization’s why may have changed. Is the organization focused on tackling hunger or is it more about multiple inter-related humanitarian projects? The answer to this question has immense ramifications for funding and resourcing decisions.

The organization must answer the question: Does providing a variety of humanitarian aid efforts dilute or enhance the why?

I use this example purposefully. The organization lost its original why, but not because of any misconduct or corruption. An organization ostensibly focused on hunger exerted energy on other worthy initiatives. Nonetheless, there are only so many resources available, and leaders must re-visit the organization’s true why. Was the organization properly equipped to handle an expanding mission? Did it have the proper mandates? Were there other organizations with clothing- or toy-related whys that were a better fit for taking over the expanded mission? All of these questions drive important leadership decisions.

Such decisions are not easy, but they are necessary. Even organizations doing great things may become overextended, and they have to re-focus.

Seeking the why

If your organization is trapped in scope expansion mode or an endless, this-is-what-we-do loop, how can you re-capture your why? Here are four tips to help you re-focus.

  • Work backwards. Examine your organizations goals and key measures. Note what they tell you about your organization’s areas of focus. How are the different areas inter-related?
  • Follow your knows. Answer the question: What inspires employees to want to work here? The answer is likely much deeper than simply benefits and salary. Most employees seek an organization whose purpose and mission align with their own life goals.
  • Peel back your layers. List your organization’s key activities and programs. For each item, ask: why do we do this? Examine the commonalities that present themselves.
  • Learn lessons of the past. Review your organization’s history. Under what circumstances have your programs thrived? What kinds of programs have failed? It is important that successes and failures be assessed honestly.

By taking a moment to re-focus, leaders can trim their organizational fat and keep their workforce nimble. They also ensure that key resources are continuously aligned with the same underlying mission.


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