Ghosts of Company Past and Future | Business Agility Series


Once upon a time, Melissa Boggs worked for a company where their mission was central to everything they did. This podcast is a story about using mission, vision and values as a beacon for Agile transformation.

Boggs is an agility culture and leadership coach with Agile42. As a Certified Enterprise Coach, she is fascinated with company cultures and how they inspire, or conversely demotivate, individuals to become amazing. In this episode, Boggs walks us through concrete steps for how to not only create a mission statement, but how to live and breathe the mission, vision and values every step going forward, and how to avoid the ghosts that sometimes get in the way of an Agile transformation.

Our favorite quote is one that resonates with so many organizations:

They already had a mission statement, but quite literally the only person who could tell me who could tell me what it was, was the sweet lady in marketing who wrote it five years ago.

Hosted by Howard Sublett.

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This episode of Agile Amped is part of a series in partnership with the Business Agility Institute.

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Read the full transcript

Howard Sublett: Hi and welcome to a special business agility edition of Agile Amped. I’m your host, Howard Sublett. Today we’re going to be talking about the Agile lighthouse: using mission, vision and values as a beacon for your Agile transformation. My guest for this episode is Melissa Boggs. Melissa is an agility culture and leadership coach with Agile42. She’s a certified enterprise coach and holds her MBA from Western Governors University. She’s an all-around Agile enthusiast and is fascinated with company cultures and how they inspire, or conversely demotivate, individuals to become amazing. Melissa, thank you so much for joining me today.

Melissa Boggs: Hi Howard. Thanks for having me.

Howard Sublett: You’re remote with me. You’re in the Denver area I’m guessing, right?

Melissa Boggs: Correct. Yes.

Howard Sublett: Ah. Awesome, awesome, awesome. Through the marvels of technology, we’re able to sit here and visit. You’ve got a conference presentation coming up at the upcoming business agility conference, that’s one of the reasons that we’re talking today. Your topic was this “Agile lighthouse: using mission, vision and values as a beacon for an Agile transformation.” Why don’t you fill me in a little bit about that?

Melissa Boggs: Sure. Here’s the funny thing: I like to say that this is a ghost story. It’s a story –

Howard Sublett: Wait, wait, wait. Should we make sure that everybody listening isn’t a child so that they don’t get scared from the ghost story?

Melissa Boggs: I’d say that they are primarily friendly ghosts …

Howard Sublett: Friendly ghosts. Okay. Got it.

Melissa Boggs: Which is positive for us. It’s a story about discovery. It’s a story about the little moments that come together, and they start paving a path toward a more Agile culture. When I was 20 years old, my first real job was at a company where our mission was central to everything that we did. This was the company where I first learned about organizational agility and our mission statement, our vision or values, were one of the reasons that we were able to stay aligned and execute almost effortlessly.

Not long ago, I was an Agile coach for a small remote company based in San Francisco. There were about 55 people scattered across the United States. They had been in business for 15 years and had recently really experienced some success and growth. I had been working with them implementing Agile in their software team, and the executive team approached me to talk about how we would grow that software team into many, many more teams. How many should we add and how quickly should we add them?

The thing is, they were already growing really rapidly in other areas of the business and they were struggling to see how they would scale and still maintain what they loved about their culture. Already in other areas they’re trying to grow and afraid they’re going to lose who they are. They were encountering some bumps in their Agile journey as well and you could see that some of that was because of misalignment and some unspoken expectations. Different departments would have goals that actually were competing for other departments’ time or other resources.

Here’s where we meet our first friendly ghost. This is “the ghost of beloved company past.” As we’re talking about this growth strategy, I’m thinking about this company that I grew up in and how all of our goals were derived from company goals and those company goals were derived from our mission. There was clarity everywhere. There was alignment and purpose and direction and there was common language. It was clear to me that we couldn’t start with a growth strategy. We needed to know who we were and who we wanted to be before we could decide where to grow and with whom to grow.

I sat down with the leaders and said, “Would you be interested in taking on this mission, vision and values exercise?” They already had a mission statement, but quite literally the only person who could tell me what it was was the sweet lady in marketing who wrote it five years ago. It was a marketing tool, and how often is that true, right?

Howard Sublett: That’s very true. Yeah.

Melissa Boggs: It was a marketing tool. It wasn’t the unifying rally cry that we needed. And so they agreed and we went through this process of kind of talking through: Who are we? What do we do? Who do we do it for? How are we going to change the world? What behaviors are important to us? And that process probably took about five months between all of the execution.

During that process, I want to share also, we met our next set of ghosts.

Howard Sublett: Uh-oh.

Melissa Boggs: And I’ll say, these ghosts are neither friendly nor foe, but I will call them “the ghosts of garage past” and “the ghosts of growing assumptions.”

Howard Sublett: “The ghost of garage past?”

Melissa Boggs: Yeah.

Howard Sublett: Oh, interesting. Okay.

Melissa Boggs: They founded this company, like many companies, in the garage of the founder.

Howard Sublett: Ah.

Melissa Boggs: They sat next to each other and they had daily and hourly conversations back in the day, but we weren’t there anymore. They weren’t having these hourly conversations about where they were going and what they were doing and so their visions were starting to diverge. These four people on their executive team who had worked very closely together for a long, long time were starting to have different ideas, and that’s okay but we weren’t talking about them explicitly. The other ghost is “the ghost of growing assumption” and that’s that divergence of vision that we weren’t really talking about.

Those are ghosts, the three ghosts. Going through this process kind of helped chase the ghosts away, if you will, and start creating some more clarity. I like to say that … We talk about the culture iceberg quite a bit – where what you can see is this much, a very small amount, and it’s the strategy and the tactics, but what you can’t see is these behaviors and these traditions. Those are the things that we need to talk about. Those are the things we need to make explicit. This process for this particular company lowered that waterline to make some of those behaviors and traditions and expectations explicit.

Howard Sublett: All right. Let’s talk about that a little bit because that’s kind of where the rubber meets the road in this. You’ve got this what you call a culture iceberg where above the water, if you said right, is kind of strategy and tactics. Below that is, you said, habits, traditions, behaviors, right?

Melissa Boggs: Right.

Howard Sublett: How do you lower that waterline? What does that look like? You’ve got the company there, you’ve got the people that are involved in it. What does that process look like?

Melissa Boggs: It started with the four leaders and first just their buy-in and their willingness is really what has to start this process and their willingness to share that process and be transparent about the process with the entire company. There’s a couple of different ways you can develop a mission statement: One is that they just write it and impose it upon everyone. Often that’s the way it ends up on the wall and no one ever talks about it again. You can also pose it to the entire company and then you have a million ideas, and while you can get some good stuff out of that it could take a really long time to actually get down to a couple of sentences.

My approach, and our approach together, was to start with a company-wide survey with some very, very specific questions. We defined ‘mission’ as: Who are we? What do we do and for whom? We defined ‘vision’ as: How will we change the world? How will the world be different when we’re gone as a result of the work that we’ve done together? Considering both of those things, what behaviors are important to us in our mission and those are our values. We actually sent a survey to the entire company asking for their answers to those questions.

Then we had a series of guided discussions, at first just with those four leaders. What was interesting is I didn’t share the survey with them at first. I wanted to see if there was already alignment between what the company believed and what the leaders believed. When it came down to it, the entire company, including the executive team, was all over the place concerning mission and vision. But when it came to values, they were incredibly aligned and that was really encouraging to me. I feel like the inverse would be a lot harder to come to terms with and to shift.

We started to have those guided discussions with the leadership team with time in between to contemplate. We would get together – and again this was a remote company so we would do this on virtual whiteboards and we would talk through all of those three questions and brainstorm. It was really interesting because sometimes we were just talking about semantics, like really it was just this word or this word. But other times there were some really gritty discussions about the purpose and the future of the company, which was amazing if you think about it, because this is before they’re growing, so now when they walk into this huge growth, they have those things nailed down.

Once we kind of went through those discussions and we drafted a couple of different versions and we shared those versions, first with what I would consider maybe middle management, to kind of get their input and their buy-in, so it wasn’t just a hierarchical thing, it was kind of also a, you know, “We need you on board. We need you to help us, because when we actually roll it out we need leadership leading the way.” But then we actually shared it with the entire company and got their feedback as well.

Once it got to that point, it was actually fairly solid. When we shared it company-wide, there wasn’t a whole lot of feedback or difference with people. They started to feel fairly comfortable with it. But it was still draft version at that point and we did a big rollout. This sounds silly but it was really important. We did t-shirts and we did water bottles and we did posters. All of that is really important when you are a remote company that is not in the office and you can’t have this giant poster, so we did everything we could to make it real to every employee sitting in their home office.

We sent those packages out and then all of the managers had video meetings with their teams and they talked about how to make that mission, vision and values real for them and their particular team. That’s where I think we actually started to see where there was more alignment and that eventually grew into more agility in those teams and more self-organization. Because together they have bought into this mission, the leaders can trust that they all know what direction that they’re going and it’s in the same direction. The leaders are starting to trust each other more because they’re not fighting over things as much. It’s not a silver bullet, but we definitely saw some improvements, some better communication and collaboration as a result of that process.

Howard Sublett: Yeah. It’s guardrails over the direction that you’re going because without that the company can go in any direction and there’s no thing that’s out of bounds as far as the product that you build or how you work together or how you relate with each other over what those things are. I think they’re really, really important for companies to get and they’re hard to do. Writing those things are miserably hard because words are important. We’ve had experiences writing them. I’ve had experiences trying to write them with companies and then I’ve also worked with international organizations trying to write mission, vision, value statements with different language barriers and it even becomes much more complicated over what those words are because they have different meanings and different contexts.

When you were putting this together and you were working with them, was there tension at any moment or was there parts that were the harder parts to get across with them or for them to come to terms on?

Melissa Boggs: There were, and I’m not sure if this is specific to their company or if this would be broadly the same, but I think again when it came to values a lot of the company was aligned. The leaders were aligned, we all kind of knew how we wanted to behave with one another. Interestingly, they actually chose agility as one of their values, which I thought was fantastic.

Howard Sublett: There you go.

Melissa Boggs: I think mission was actually easier as well. One of the biggest things that is almost a misconception or that people struggle with is the difference between mission and vision, which is why we really kind of put that in stone before we got started. Mission wasn’t too bad because generally speaking it didn’t take too long to get to the right words around what we do and for whom; who we are, what we do and for whom, because that’s what we’re doing right now. What’s harder is: How are we going to change the world? How is the world going to be different?

That’s where you really … You don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know what other companies are going to do. You don’t know what the market is going to do. That’s when you actually have to really start being true to you and true to what we’re here for and what that looks like in the future despite what other people are doing.

We had some very healthy discussions around there. I don’t know if I would say a lot of tension, but I would say a lot of almost going in circles where we start one place and then we get to another topic and we kind of circle back around to the first one again because, again, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Howard Sublett: That’s maybe a word of “thrash” that comes to mind.

Melissa Boggs: Yes. That’s the word I was looking for.

Howard Sublett: It happens because, especially when you have passionate people about a company that you’re building or places that you work, everybody in a way wants to put their fingerprint on this word and this phrase that’s going to kind of align us and it’s helping to have every voice heard in that, can cause a lot of that thrash. What seems simple and seems like, “Oh, this is the phrase, and then, no, it’s not because this happens,” and then it becomes circular and then you’re back to where you started sometimes. But that’s part of the process.

Melissa Boggs: Right. To your point, that’s the baggage that everyone brings with their specific connotation to a word – and that exists, whether we talk about it or not, it exists. When I talk about lowering the waterline, that’s exactly what I’m talking about – was like putting words on paper and talking about what those words mean because those words are floating in the air anyway and so if you can really get them out there and have discussions around them, then you’re getting somewhere, then your culture is more explicit, your strategy becomes more explicit as a result.

Howard Sublett: Companies that I’ve seen, and you probably have seen this too, and I don’t know if it applies to ones that you’re worked with, is that they may have mission, vision, value statements or the things that are above the iceberg and things that they talk about, but the behaviors of the organization and how things work are quite different sometimes. I’ve seen companies with very positive, warm, cheery, kind of people-focused statements, but yet in the day-to-day life sometimes it can be a little bit more “dog eat dog.”

How do you ensure connection between those statements and actions in an organization? How do you validate and how do you hold people … How do people hold themselves accountable towards those within – Because coming up with the words and coming up with the phrases is one thing, living them and making them real in action is another thing altogether.

Melissa Boggs: Absolutely. I talk about that a lot. The simple answer, but I will expand a little bit, is talking about it until you cannot talk about it anymore and then talk about it some more. By that, I mean … Part of the reason we spoke with those middle managers before going across the company was that the eventual goal, and this is even still in process, is changing our performance assessments: changing how we hire people, changing the interview process to actually involve those things.

Onboarding – changing onboarding to make sure that one of the primary focuses of onboarding is that new employee understanding where they fit in the mission. When I say, “Talk about it,” I mean every day. Every decision that we make, does it align with the mission? When it comes to choosing products or making product decisions on existing products – there’s so much that we could do. You kind of alluded to this before with the guardrails. This needs to be the lighthouse, this needs to be the North Star. Does it align with the mission?

Even if it’s so cool and even if Competitor A and B are doing it, if it does not align with the mission, then we shouldn’t do it. It’s just a matter of really building it into the fabric of the company, and that takes time for sure and it takes intention, but it’s highly possible. Everything I just described to you, those are all of the things that existed in the company that I grew up in, “the ghost of beloved company past.” All of those things existed. To this day … Let’s see, I left that company I can’t even tell you how many years go, but I could still tell you the mission, the vision and the core ideologies from memory today. It’s just really about it being the fabric of the company.

Howard Sublett: Wow. I’ll ask a strange question: Whose job is that? Is that somebody’s job in the organization to help make sure that those, that MVV, is in the vernacular of everybody every day? Is that a role within it? Is it a CEO role? Who owns that?

Melissa Boggs: That is an interesting question. I do think it would vary by the company. I think leadership absolutely has a responsibility to – whether that’s the C-suite or middle management – to build that in, but I’ve also seen companies who had a culture squad, which was not necessarily HR but maybe it was actually a conglomeration of people from around the company who were interested in things like that, that kind of volunteered to do awards or different recognition for adhering to the values or demonstrating the values.

That particular company, we actually created a Slack channel specifically to recognize people who were demonstrating the values or to talk about, you know – We had this decision today and because of the mission we decided A over B. To continually kind of keep that – I think it’s everybody’s job really. I think there’s, again, certainly a leadership role, but I think it’s everyone’s job to know where their part is, help other people know where their part is, and to keep it going, because it only makes us better.

Howard Sublett: I could see your – what did you call it, the culture squad or something? – I can see that in support of a leadership’s role in that but not in replacement of [it]. That would make a lot of sense to help increase the impressions that happened in that, but not in replace of [it]. I think it would be a good add-on for that.

Melissa Boggs: For sure. If you talk about changing, onboarding and performance reviews and those types of things, there’s certainly an HR component to that as well. Again, it’s kind of everybody’s job but maybe in a different way, depending on where you are in the organization.

Howard Sublett: Before we started recording, you made a statement that I made a pretty good note here about, saying that at the end of the day that lowering the waterline on the iceberg, on this particular iceberg, enabled agility. I thought that was a powerful statement. Can you tell me a little bit about how that enables agility.

Melissa Boggs: It’s really hard to be nimble and to be agile when you’re thrashing. I think a lot of organizations find themselves thrashing with these competing goals and these competing people even. You have employees who are competing because they might have different ideas of where we’re going. You have managers who are afraid to allow self-organization and by that I mean it’s not that they don’t want to because that would free them up to focus on more strategic things, but if you don’t have trust that everyone on your team is on the same page, going in the same direction, anyone in that situation is going to have a hard time letting go.

And so pointing everyone in the same direction, connecting people to purpose, to the organization’s purpose, to the team’s purpose, to their own purpose – all of that enables agility. All of that allows autonomy to happen because there’s trust. At the end of the day, agility and autonomy all boil down to trust and so if I know we’re on the same page, then I’m going to kind of back off and do what I need to do as a manager.

To get there, to stop the thrashing, we lower the waterline on these traditions and behaviors and habits and we actually talk about them. That’s that process of developing mission, vision, values. It’s the process and the roles of keeping it going and keeping it in the fabric of the company. It’s just kind of recognizing it and revisiting it in time as well.

That’s another thing to point out is this isn’t in stone for ten years. I think, just like anything else, it also has to be Agile. I think it’s something that you hope is going to be stable for long enough for you to make some good decisions, but it’s also good to revisit it at certain intervals, so setting a cadence for revisiting it as well is going to keep that conversation going and keep that agility enabled.

Howard Sublett: Have you got an idea over what that cadence might be?

Melissa Boggs: I think … Again, consultant answer: It depends.

Howard Sublett: It depends. I was hoping you were going to say that. Yeah.

Melissa Boggs: At some point I was bound to say ‘it depends’.

Howard Sublett: That’s right.

Melissa Boggs: But I do … I think it does depend on the size of the company. I think you’ll know – actually let me go back – I think you’ll know, based on how long it took you to develop it the first time and how much you had to lower the waterline to get somewhere, how much you need to revisit it. I think that’ll tell you something. I’m not sure what it is, but I think there’s something around how explicit was it in the first place that will help you determine how often you need to revisit it in the future.

Howard Sublett: Wow. That’s an interesting way to think about that. I was thinking about it on the other side of that equation to where – And this is kind of a dangerous thing to think, but the moment that the business that we’re doing, the work that we’re doing or the way that our company is working, starts getting out of alignment with those mission, vision, values. Not because we’re not trying but it just doesn’t connect anymore. There’s a disconnect and we can’t seem to resolve that made it feel like that may be a time to sense and respond and adjust, but I think you may have to be careful that it’s not just “We just don’t want to follow those anymore.” You know what I mean?

Melissa Boggs: Yeah.

Howard Sublett: How to know when you’re just taking a divergent path because it’s easier or it’s actually a time for kind of a slight shift in the organization.

Melissa Boggs: Agree. What you actually made me just think of was retrospectives, where we retrospect on a cadence, right? But that doesn’t mean that in the middle of a sprint something’s going wrong and we just say, “Oh, we won’t talk about that until retro.” I think it’s the same thing. I think you develop a cadence but you certainly still … You sense and respond but, again, to your point, that is a slippery slope. I think we have to be careful with that and not just change it because it requires discipline or because we don’t want to do anymore.

Howard Sublett: All right. You’ve got a … I do know you have a session at a business agility conference coming up. Is that March 15th? I believe it is in New York, is that correct?

Melissa Boggs: Yes.

Howard Sublett: All right. If somebody wants to hear more about this particular topic they can come see you at a business agility conference March 15th, or if they want to reach out to you do you have some way people can contact you, a Twitter or an email or something that you want to give?

Melissa Boggs: Sure. You can reach me via email at melissa.boggs@agile42.com or I am on Twitter @hmngbirdagility, which is H-M-N-G-B-I-R-D agility.

Howard Sublett: I noticed you dropped a couple of the vowels out of that to kind of shorten that Twitter handle just a little bit.

Melissa Boggs: Twitter wouldn’t let me have the entire hummingbird. Too many letters.

Howard Sublett: Twitter must be evil. No, that was too many letters.

Melissa Boggs: Now that there’s more characters though I have to wonder if there are more characters in Twitter handles. I’ll have to check.

Howard Sublett: There might be. That may be another topic for a future podcast, huh?

Melissa Boggs: There you go.

Howard Sublett: Melissa, thank you so much for joining me. I sure appreciate the conversation.

Melissa Boggs: Same Howard. Thank you for having me.