​​Jus​t Three Words

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Quick. No thought. Don't look it up. No cheating. Without a moment's hesitation. Tell me your department's or your organization's vision or mission statement.

[He pauses and listens to the embarrassed silence.]

Yeah...that's what I thought. (However, before moving on, let us all provide a short smattering of golf applause for those very few who passed this test.)

Not too long ago, I was "lucky" enough to be involved in not just one, but two projects doing work regarding vision statements. During the various meetings surrounding one of those projects, I heard the following phrase: "Before moving forward, I'd like to change just three words." 

I almost laughed out loud. Changing three words in a twenty-word statement sounded like more of the "writing by committee" that results in pages of gobbledygook and double speak used to replace thought when sending messages to well-intentioned employees who would rather have hot mechanical pencils driven through their eyes than sit in another meeting explaining how the committee-produced pabulum is the foundation of success for the company; will inspire all to greater heights; will result in increased productivity, reduced expenses, and ballooning profits; will cure warts, zits, and hemorrhoids; will send a man to Mars, a woman to the boardroom, and kids to bed early on school nights; and will ultimately lead to peace on earth and good will to all men.

Luckily for me I choked down my laughter before I could let it fly. I realized how profound her statement actually was.

A well-crafted vision/mission statement is all about the economic use of precisely chosen, absolutely correct words. If diligent, thoughtful, hard work has been put into the statement, then the changing of three words can lift it from boring nonsense to soaring inspiration. (Don't think three words can make a difference?  Then I propose we change the definition of internal audit by just three words; let's eliminate "independent", "objective", and "assurance".) 

Part of the reason this person's comment resonated so strongly was because of the second experience I had just had with the development of a vision statement. In that second project, the original vision statement was quite long and no one could ever seem to remember it. (See pop quiz above.) It contained some good points, but it just went on and on. After a great deal of work, the team proposed a considerably shorter version that trimmed extraneous words and focused on key points. Everyone agreed there were important points in the original statement that had fallen to the cutting room floor, so these were moved to the value statements the department had also developed.

After all the hard work, the new vision and value statements were presented to senior management who took the new proposal under advisement for approximately two weeks. Eventually, with no further involvement of the working group, senior management decided the original vision statement was sufficient after they made (I kid you not) changes to three words.

Three words out of twenty; three words out of 75 (or 100 or 200 or 1,000 or – I lose count). Do you see the difference here?

In the first instance, there was a tightly scripted vision statement where care had been taken with every word, that was concise enough that all could remember it, and that provided true value as people could use it to make a difference in what they did.

In the second instance, the department was left with a statement that no one could remember, that was trotted out once or twice a year to remind everyone what they were doing, that was occasionally emblazoned in the middle of an unread memo, and that did nothing to help anyone understand what they really wanted to achieve.

After going on too long, here's the sermon with the soup. If you are going to put together a vision/mission statement, it is not something that should be dashed out, trotted around like a prize stallion, and then stabled until you feel like mentioning it again. Everything you do in your department should derive from those statements. Your vision drives your mission drives your principles drives your strategy drives your plans drives your actions drives your day-to-day work. Far too often, departments do not align ANY of these. Oh, maybe there is evidence the strategy and plan are working together. Occasionally, the plans may actually relate to what is accomplished. But far too often the concepts of vision and mission (and, while we're at it, manifestos and values and purpose and any other title you want to provide that means "this is what we really mean; this is what we are all about") are an afterthought, first approached long after the rest of the work is already done. They have no bearing on anything that is being accomplished. The tail wags the dog, the caboose pushes the train, and the timelines control the audits.

And, since I've already gone on longer than I should and most of you have probably tucked yourselves in and gone to sleep for the night, I'll give you one more thought. I know there are some of you who do not believe your audit department needs a vision or mission statement.   Some believe it is already understood. Others think it is folderol and codswallop. And most think that, while it might be nice, there is real work to be done.

I've got some really bad news for you; whether you have articulated such a statement or not, you have one. Without it being put in writing, it is buried deep within the head of each and every employee in your audit department. And by being so buried, you can never be sure that any of those sublimated visions match. One auditor thinks it is delivering quality product to the auditee, another thinks it is providing assurance to the audit committee, another thinks it is using the skills within the department to make the organization better, another thinks it is hitting milestones, and another thinks it is looking busy until it is time for lunch.

And they are all valid statements (although a couple are a bit shortsighted). It is only by articulating the departmental values for all to see that there can be any assurance that everyone is aligned toward achieving the same golden ring.

(And lest I be accused of speaking only to executives here: If you are in an environment where there is no appetite for such "foolishness", start a grassroots campaign. Yes, you'll have to be careful, but find the likeminded in your department and come up with the departmental manifesto, vision, mission, aspirations – however you want to express this roguish approach to driving direction.)

Ultimately, until the entire audit department can say where it is going, and can point out that direction in unison, you are going nowhere. As Yogi Berra said, "You've got to be careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."

And, if you are changing just three words, make sure you are doing it to make a difference, not just changing them because it is easier than thinking about what it is you really want to accomplish.

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