As Muhammad Ali told the interviewer: “Whatever ‘truculent’ means, if that’s good, I’m that.

It can be much the same with ‘management theory’. The buzz-words sound good even when the meaning isn’t at all clear.

Sometimes it’s little more than the words that’s wanted. Why else, years ago, was the job of writing the college mission statement delegated to me, a new Head of English with no senior management experience? “You’re good with words – write me a mission statement for the college, would you?

But understanding what the management jargon means is vital because although the language can be opaque, what it stands for really matters: it can make the difference between success and failure. We have to be able to talk about the fundamental ideas in leadership and management without the words getting in the way of the point.

So here’s an attempt to pass the Muhammad Ali limpid-simplicity test on three key terms in management theory:

A mission statement says who you are and what you do. It’s as concise as possible a description of the character of your organisation and what it’s purpose is.

It’s important for four reasons.

  • First, it gives everyone in the organisation the confidence that everybody shares the same priorities. They’ll feel happier and more committed.
  • Second, if everyone’s working to the same purpose it’ll be a team, not just a bunch of talented individuals: the organisation will achieve more and faster.
  • Third, change will be easier to implement: demonstrate how the mission requires it and everyone begins, at least, from a position of agreement.
  • Fourth, it makes it easier for anyone outside the organisation to know who you are which inspires their confidence that you know what you’re about.

So the mission matters. A lot. Don’t leave drawing it up to one person, not even the CEO. Engage the whole organisation in getting it right.

Because the mission statement clarifies your purpose it will guide strategic planning, enabling effective change through strategic rather than operational interventions. True, sometimes only an operational action is needed. If the roof’s leaking we replace the missing tile.

But if the roof’s not just leaking but structurally unsound it won’t be fixed by repeated operational interventions – a screw in here, a nail there and a bucket where it’s leaking. It’s a strategic problem because: a) several different things need to happen, some of them quite complex, and b) they have to be planned to happen in the right order.

Don’t mistake fixing a tile for fixing the roof. The important changes needed in an organisation are likely to be strategic, not operational. Understand the issues and plan the actions in the right sequence.

Would Muhammed Ali have felt that passed the test, I wonder…?

“Man, if you even dream that comes close to passing you better wake up at once and apologise!”

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

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