What Is Your One Sentence?

Over the last week I have worked with two organisations seeking nirvana – the one sentence that encapsulates the vision that will ignite the passion from within. The quandary is not only in the finesse (i.e. getting one sentence is harder than one would think) but the balance between the left brain (a big hairy audacious goal) and the right brain (a vivid description of what the future world can look like). In a lot of ways it is the distillation of the passion model.

Current engagement practices suffer from three compatibility problems. It doesn’t mesh with the way many new business models are organizing what we do – because we’re intrinsically motivated purpose maximisers, not only extrinsically motivated profit maximisers. It doesn’t comport with the way that twenty-first century economics thinks about what we do – because economists are finally realizing that we’re fully-fledged human beings, not single-minded economic robots. And perhaps more important, it’s hard to reconcile with much of what we actually do at work – because for a growing numbers of people, work is often creative, interesting, and self-directed rather than unrelentingly, routine, boring, and other-directed. Taken together, these compatibility problems warn us that something’ gone awry in our motivational reporting system. 

The dilemma for the new age is that motivation and purpose should not be at the behest of opinion. One CEO that I am working with expressed: “If you try to make everyone happy, you end up in mediocrity. Our company has opinions and we build products and do business based on those opinions. We need more opinionated companies.” Dan Pink has an especially poignant way of making this very important point. In his bestseller Drive, which explores “the surprising truth about what motivates us,” Dan identifies with clarity and cleverness the three big drivers of performance and success: autonomy, mastery & purpose.

Most of his analysis speaks to the roots of individual performance, but it’s easy to extend his insights to business performance. In particular, he urges individuals to ask a question of themselves that I believe leaders should ask of their companies as well.”

On the edges of the economy – slowly, but inexorably – old fashioned ideas of management are giving way to a newfangled emphasis on self-direction. We forget sometimes that “management” does not emanate from nature. It’s not like a tree or a river. It’s like a television or a bicycle. It’s something that humans invented. As the strategy guru Gary Hamel has observed, management is a technology. And like “motivation” it’s a technology that has grown creaky. While some companies have oiled the gears a bit, and plenty more have paid lip service to the same, at its core management hasn’t changed much in a hundred years. Its central ethic remains control; its chief tools remain extrinsic motivators. That leaves it largely out of sync with the non-routine, right-brain abilities on which many of the worlds’ economies now depend. But could its most glaring weakness run deeper? Is management, as it is currently constituted, out of sync with human nature itself?

As Tom Kelley GM of Ideo remarked: “The ultimate freedom for creative groups is the freedom to experiment with new ideas. Some skeptics insist that innovation is expensive. In the long run, innovation is cheap. Mediocrity is expensive – and autonomy can be the antidote.”

The opposite of autonomy is control. Where control sought compliance, autonomy seeks engagement. Only engagement can produce mastery. And the pursuit of mastery, an important but more dormant part of our drive, has become essential in making one’s way in today’s economy. Unfortunately, despite sweet swelling words like ‘empowerment’ that waft through corporate corridors, the modern workplaces’ most notable feature may be its lack of engagement and its disregard for mastery. Gallup’s extensive research on the subject shows that in the United States, more than 50 percent of employees are not engaged at work – and nearly 20% are actively disengaged. The cost of all this disengagement: about $300 billion a year in lost productivity.

The first two legs of the performance tripod, autonomy and mastery, are essential. But for proper balance we need a third leg – purpose, which provides a context for its two mates Autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels. But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more. The most deeply motivated people – not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied – hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.

In response, business has begun to rethink how purpose figures in what it does. Gary Hamel remarks: “As an emotional catalyst, wealth maximization lacks the power to fully mobilise human energies.”

In his book Drive, Dan Pink tells a story about Clare Booth Luce, the accomplished playwright and Republican member. In 1962, Luce had a meeting with President Kennedy, who was, at the time, pursuing an ambitious agenda domestically and overseas. She worried about his diffuse priorities. “A great man,”she advised him, “is one sentence.”President Lincoln’s sentence was obvious: “HE preserved the union and freed the slaves.”What Luce challenged the president, was to be his sentence.

What a powerful question – not just for great presidents, but for great companies too. Time and again, as I’ve gotten to know organisations that are winning big in tough industries, I’ve been struck by the clarity, simplicity, and originality of the defining ideas that drive them – their version of Luce’s sentence. I don’t mean that they have a clever slogan or a well-crafted vision statement. I mean that they have a well defined and widely shared sense of the impact they want to have in their field and the legacy they hope to leave in their wake. As you think about the ideas you stand for and the difference you hope to make, ask yourself, What’s your company sentence?

Back to Blog

Get Mark's thought-provoking exploration straight into your inbox