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The 3 Basics All Organizations Need To Survive

Image via Marekuliasz/

Excellence in Government recently hosted a webcast about how to thrive during times of uncertainty and transition. During that discussion, I outlined three key things your organization needs to “get back to basics” and thrive in the face of uncertainty and looming budget cuts.

Three Ways to Get Back to Basics

Our world is a chaotic one. During times of change, uncertainty and upheaval, one of the most important things you can do to reassert control is simply get back to basics. The “basics” exist in three critical elements: Mission, Values, and Commitments.

If I asked what your team’s mission, values and commitments were, would you have an answer? Don’t get nervous, let’s figure them out—and get intentional about each:

1) Mission: What It Is

Most federal managers are familiar with the basics of strategic planning: Vision, Mission, Goals, Objectives, etc. All these elements matter – a lot. During transition, they matter even more. In times of transition it’s important to dig a little deeper and remind ourselves about what’s really at the core of what we do. Simply put, mission is the fundamental reason for an organizations’ existence. You and your whole team should know it without hesitation.

How to Find It:

Try this exercise: Write down what your organization does in 10 words or less. It’s simple—and enlightening. Create a one-pager and specify the words—the jargon—you cannot use in crafting your 10 word mission statement. I’m not suggesting you replace what I’m sure is a great official mission statement. I am suggesting you simplify it and translate it into plain language. Have a “get real” moment with yourself about what you really do. This will prove invaluable during budget talks when you are asked to justify what you do by higher ups who may not share your organization’s language or lexicon. If the people with the money don’t understand what you do (or, worse, if you don’t understand what you do…) you’re in trouble. Make it easy for them to understand—and have fun while doing it.

2) Values: What They Are

Values are often skipped in the strategic planning process. That’s a mistake. Values are important to team success, particularly during times of change. They are the foundation upon which we do the work we do and every action we take, as an individual and as a team, is informed by our values.

How to Identify Them:

If you’ve never identified organizational values, discovering them can be a compelling exercise for you and your team. Try using a free online tool like Ideascale. It allows people to contribute ideas and vote on them in real-time. My firm used Ideascale to identify our values and had a transformative experience as a result of having to really dig deep during a financial crisis a few years ago. We asked ourselves: above all else, what are the values that make up the foundation upon which we do what we do? What are the values that we live by and, that if we practice, will contribute to our individual and organizational success?

Some of what we identified isn’t what you’d expect: Things like Inner Voice, Eating Our Own Dog Food, Transparency, and Stand for Something. In all, we identified 10 key values that, today, are an everyday part of our operation. Many of us wholeheartedly believe that our focus on values during a no-kidding “are we going to make it through this?” period of time is what actually helped us through. Our values are what today help us thrive both individually and as an organization.

3) Commitments: What They Are

The third back to basics element concerns commitment. Think of commitments as doing a really deep dive on priorities. These are the things we are committed to – no matter what. Commitments transcend organizational charts, strategic plans and even mission. There is a staying power—or sticky quality—to commitments. They link the organization to the individual and the individual back to the organization. In times of change, and when ambiguity is a daily fact of life, getting really clear about organizational commitments is powerful. Your commitments are your mission and values in action.

How to Create Them:

My first blog for Excellence in Government was titled “Generate Commitment by Following Through on Yours.” It lays out critical distinctions and questions worth exploring as you consider what it takes to thrive. In getting clear about your commitments, another simple exercise you can do is called: Stop, Start, Continue.

You can do this solo, as a leadership team or organization-wide. Identify those things to start doing, to stop doing, and continue doing. When we are faced with potential cuts and uncertainty, taking the time to be intentional about what’s being done (or not being done) can be compelling. Far too often people and organizations do the “inherited things” without pausing long enough to ask why—or in service of what.

Bringing it Together: The Three Basics in Action

This week we observed Veterans Day. In my mind, nothing better exemplifies the combination of the above three elements than those who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. The guards are motivated by their mission; their actions are sourced by their commitment; and those commitment-based actions are sustained, even in the face of a historic hurricane, by their values. The commitment shown and values demonstrated by those who guarded the tomb is what we’re talking about here: getting back to basics. And, the basics are powerful.

I’ll be writing more about what contributes to individual and organizational thriving. In the meantime, carve out 15 minutes to ask yourself this question:

In the midst of ambiguity and uncertainty, are you clear on the basics—your mission, values and commitments—that help organizations thrive?

(Image via Marekuliasz/

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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