The other day I was speaking with a CEO who wanted me to help facilitate a conversation around the crafting of the company’s purpose statement.
I asked her, “Why do you want to do this?”
She explained that she wanted everyone on her team to fully understand and be aligned behind the purpose of the organization. Given this as her objective, I suggested that wordsmithing may not be the best use of their time.
Deep versus Surface Structure
In language, there is the concept of “deep” versus “surface” structure. The deep structure is the meaning; what you want to convey. The surface structure is the actual configuration of words, used to express what you want to say. When you debate the specific words that should be in your mission or vision statement, you are automatically focusing on the surface structure. But if your goal is alignment and understanding, the words are not as important as the intent – the deep structure. Access to the deep structure is not intellectual. It is visceral.
To do this, I suggested that the team visit/interview clients. Talk to individuals and organizations that have been impacted by their work. Talk about “why” you are in business. Have each person on the team share personal stories. Get emotional.
The specific wording of a purpose, mission or vision statement (the surface structure) is not as important as the meaning behind the words (the deep structure). This is where you tap into implicit motivations.
When organizations focus on the deep structure, improvisation begins to emerge. Innovation becomes a more natural act because everyone is clear on the “why” and “what.” From there, they can innovate the “how.” Work becomes a truer expression of each individual.
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By Stephen Shapiro