How Solid is Your Organization’s Story? A Simple Template for Aligning on Who You Are

Over the years, I’ve noticed that clients who invest the time and effort in proactively defining and aligning their organization’s story are often the ones that make better decisions and drive better results. I want to share what I mean by “story” and also provide a simple template that organizations can use as a checklist to identify and fill gaps in their stories.

The Organization’s Story

The organization’s story can be explained by the layers of questions that’s required to tell it well. It starts with the big one:

Who are we?

We can break this down into a few smaller questions:

  • What is our purpose? (alternatively: What is our mission? / Why do we exist?)
  • What do we care about? (alternatively: What are our values?)
  • What do we want to achieve? (alternatively: Where are we headed? / What are we working towards? / What is our vision?)

When you take a step back, you’ll notice that these questions break down into three pillars: Mission, Values, and Vision. So is the organization’s story as simple as defining these three pillars? If only it was that simple!

The following sets of questions will help unpack each of these pillars, generating the data and narrative elements to synthesize a custom-tailored story for your organization. One important thing to note is that the story that emerges will largely be a product of the people involved, so be sure to include an appropriate number and range of perspectives that will help answer these questions.

The Mission

The value of crafting a mission statement is not necessarily the end result, which is often (especially for outsiders) a vague and overly simplified sentence like “we empower learning”, but the questions an organization must answer about itself in order to land on the statement. When telling the organization’s story, the answers to these questions will clearly articulate the organization’s driving force and its raison d’être.

Here are questions for unpacking and building your organization’s mission:

  1. What does your organization do? What products and services does it offer?
  2. How did it come into being? What is the founder story? How has the company evolved from its founding to what it is today?
  3. Who are the customers?
  4. What problem does the organization solve for its customers?
  5. Who are the competitors, both direct and indirect?
  6. What makes the organization unique and differentiated from the competition?

At Barrel, we go deep into understanding our client’s business model, customers, and competitors before we begin an engagement. The questions above touch upon some of the things we try to learn during the process. Listed below are three frameworks that we employ to go even deeper. I think any organization can benefit from internally engaging in exercises using these frameworks.

  • Business Model Canvas: great for documenting existing business models or, for startups, developing new ones
  • Porter’s five forces analysis: a comprehensive way to think about an industry and its various players, from entrenched incumbents to new entrants
  • Jobs to Be Done: a framework to understanding (and creating) the functional, social, and emotional forces that compel customers to make decisions

The Mission that your organization ultimately adopts as part of the story is one that will be backed by confident knowledge of what you do, who you serve, and how you stand out and compete. The encapsulating mission statement should, to those who believe in and understand the mission, describe the footprint the organization has on the world.

The Values

Think about the things your organization considers when making big and tough decisions. These may have to do with hiring and firing employees, dealing with unhappy customers, deciding whether or not to enter into an impactful partnership with another organization, or making significant changes to your organization’s products or services.

It’s during these situations when your organization’s true values emerge. If the Mission defines the “what” of your story, then the Values define the “how” – how will you go about doing what you set out to do?

While stressful, high stakes situations may reveal an organization’s true values, its values are developed in smaller micro-decisions that are made day after day. These are the behaviors exhibited by the leadership team and the employees. They are also in the nature of interactions with customers and vendors. Slapping an aspirational word like “integrity” or “teamwork” and calling them the organization’s “core values” won’t mean much if the daily behaviors don’t back them up.

The following are questions to help you generate ideas for your organization’s Values. To answer these, first imagine that your organization is firing on all cylinders and everything is going as well as it possible can. Then, ask yourself:

  1. What is your team doing really well? Describe what your organization’s version of a “well-oiled machine” looks and sounds like.
  2. How are they interacting with each others? Describe their actions and the words they’re using with each other.
  3. How are they interacting with customers? Describe their actions and the words they’re using with customers.
  4. How are they managing challenging situations? What is their demeanor and their process of solving these problems?

Defining an organization’s values is not a simple “fill in the blank” exercise. It requires much reflection, many conversations with team members, and a collaborative process to synthesize and roll out to the organization.

Various leadership books offer exercises and frameworks to tackle this. I personally like the one in Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman, where you start by listing out the three members of your team that you would love to clone and writing down their exemplifying qualities. You then use that as a starting point to narrow in on the behaviors that can be codified into the organization’s Core Values.

In case you’re curious, Barrel’s Core Values are the following:

  • Continuous Growth & Learning
  • Team-First Mentality
  • Positive Attitude
  • Focus & Discipline

These may not mean much to outsiders, but internally, we bring these up at every new employee on-boarding, at every monthly team meeting, one-on-one performance reviews, and in various team communications. Under each are bullets of behaviors that are expected from everyone who works at Barrel.

The Vision

To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.

Stephen R. Covey wrote the above when talking about his Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind in the classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For organizations, the same principle applies–knowing your destination will help bring clarity and direction to the steps you need to take.

There are many approaches one can take to formulate a vision for the organization. In fact, here are a few that I’ve come across over the years that may serve as good frameworks:

  • Big Hairy Audacious Goal: popularized in Jim Collins’s book Built to Last, this is a vision statement that’s meant to focus an organization on a single, ambitious target achievement
  • Visioning: the practice used by Zingerman’s to establish a “picture of success.” Their 2020 Visioning document is worth checking out.
  • Vision/Traction Organizer: this is also from Traction by Gino Wickman; its vision component consists of a 10-Year Target, a 3-Year Picture, and a 1-Year Plan.

At Barrel, we use the Vision/Traction Organizer, and it’s been a helpful tool for making us deliberate and think hard about the short, medium, and long-term destinations. It’s a document that the leadership team revisits each quarter and reassesses annually.

Below are questions to help you think about your Vision and how it fits into your organization’s story. First, imagine your company 5 years into the future and then ask yourself these questions:

  1. What has your company achieved in the past 5 years?
  2. What new products or services does it offer?
  3. How has the customer base changed, if at all?
  4. How has the org structure changed? What is the headcount? Are there new roles that have emerged?
  5. How are the company’s financials? What are the revenues? What are its profits?

For some organizations, the Vision for 5 years may mean that the company no longer exists due to some kind of strategic move (acquisition, wind down, etc.). Either way, the goal of establishing a Vision is to put a stake on what is an uncertain and unpredictable future. With a Vision in place, the story now has an ending (or at least the end of a chapter) it can work towards.

Putting the Story Together

As you can see, telling a good story requires a great deal of work. The template of Mission-Values-Vision may be simple, but articulating each pillar in a clear manner and in a way that resonates with your entire team requires a thorough understanding of the organization’s inner workings and its people. The quality of the story improves as your understanding grows deeper and more nuanced.

If you’ve done variations of this exercise within your organization many times and can answer all the questions with ease, your story should be in solid shape. If you find any of these questions difficult to answer or realize that they’ve never come up within your organization before, it’s never too late to initiate some workshops to define your Mission, Values, and Vision.

A solid story will go a long way in shaping the organization’s brand, the public’s perception of what the organization stands for and emotions it evokes, and the story will serve as a foundation for formulating strategy, the approach you take and the plans you adopt to realize your Vision.

To recap, below is the template along with the questions.

The Mission

  1. What does your organization do? What products and services does it offer?
  2. How did it come into being? What is the founder story? How has the company evolved from its founding to what it is today?
  3. Who are the customers?
  4. What problem does the organization solve for its customers?
  5. Who are the competitors, both direct and indirect?
  6. What makes the organization unique and differentiated from the competition?

The Values
Imagine that your company is firing on all cylinders. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is your team doing really well? Describe what your organization’s version of a “well-oiled machine” looks and sounds like.
  2. How are they interacting with each others? Describe their actions and the words they’re using with each other.
  3. How are they interacting with customers? Describe their actions and the words they’re using with customers.
  4. How are they managing challenging situations? What is their demeanor and their process of solving these problems?

The Vision
Imagine your company 5 years into the future and then ask yourself these questions:

  1. What has your company achieved in the past 5 years?
  2. What new products or services does it offer?
  3. How has the customer base changed, if at all?
  4. How has the org structure changed? What is the headcount? Are there new roles that have emerged?
  5. How are the company’s financials? What are the revenues? What are its profits?

We Are in the Storytelling Business

I studied film and history college and my lifelong dream is to write a novel, no matter how crappy it turns out. I’ve always been fascinated by stories. Done right, stories can transport you to new places and incite various feelings within you. You can end up caring deeply about something or someone you knew very little about just minutes ago. An effective story can make you switch long-held beliefs or turn you into a staunch advocate or the meanest hater.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the work we do at Barrel and how we talk about ourselves. For a long time, we ran with our default story: we make websites. It was a flat story because it didn’t explain the impact of our work, who we helped, and why we mattered. We hoped that people would see the nice work we did and give us a call. This worked well enough for some time that we didn’t really give the story much thought.

Two years ago, we decided to build our portfolio with certain types of clients. Our goal was to target what we labeled “healthy lifestyle” brands. We speculated that if we could build a strong roster of clients in this space, we could use that to win new clients more easily. This turned out to be a good idea, and today, our concentrated portfolio is a source of strength. We have countless examples to show prospective clients that have a health and wellness angle. In fact, we turned this into a story: we’re an agency that loves working with healthy lifestyle brands, and we’ve amassed a great deal of experience helping brands in this space to grow. It’s a much better story than “we make websites.”

Today, the story has evolved even more. We tell our clients that we partner with brands to attract, convert, and retain customers. We have two diagrams that illustrate our approach. The first one shows the way we look at a client’s digital marketing ecosystem and the various ways we can assist. We mention that for some clients, we may have focused on just paid media or email marketing while for others, we may have touched just about every part of their digital marketing efforts.

Platform - Content - Distribution & Acquisition

The second diagram shows how we use the Attract > Convert > Retain model to find opportunities to help grow the client’s business. Under each are some of the common marketing activities we’ve engaged in to help our clients reach new audiences, get them to sign up, and increase the overall lifetime value of their customers.

Attract-Convert-Retain

These have been immensely useful in telling a different kind of story to our prospective clients: we have a strong understanding of our clients’ challenges and a proven framework for helping them achieve results.

You may have heard the term “brand positioning” thrown around in client meetings or design discussions. For Barrel, our latest story is a good example of brand positioning. Imagine, in the client’s mind, a line-up of the 3-4 agencies that they’ve met and spoken to about a particular project. Through our diagrams (process + understanding), our case studies, and our confidence, we literally establish a position in our client’s mind that is clearly differentiated from the other agencies with a unique offering that the others haven’t even bothered to discuss. This helps us become the obvious choice.

Walking the Walk

Of course, the stories we tell about ourselves would quickly become ineffective if we couldn’t back them up with concrete examples and a verifiable track record. Business development, as I have mentioned above, relies heavily on effective storytelling. I’d argue that beyond biz dev, everyone at Barrel is involved in the business of storytelling.

Let’s talk about our work. The designs, the code, the creating and gathering of content, the deployment of websites, the sending of emails, the posting of social content. What’s it all for? We’ve used the term “creating impactful experiences” in the past to describe our work, but what was the impact and why did these experiences need to exist? My belief is that we’re actually all working towards creating stories that will connect with the end user. This end user–the prospect, the returning customer, the reader, etc.–is our audience. If the story is good, the end user will feel something, and that feeling, we hope, will compel them to take action, whether it’s to sign up, purchase, or get in touch.

A quick aside: it may seem like I’m swapping out the word “experience” for “story”, but I believe that stories are actually a subset of the larger user experience. A great user experience may employ multiple stories for different circumstances/audience segments and attach different goals to those stories (e.g. think of a brand like AirBnB and the stories you want to tell a potential guest versus the stories you want to tell potential hosts).

Here’s a diagram to illustrate my point:

Stories for the End User

Think about how our team contributes to the Content Layer and the Presentation Layer. So much of our efforts go into synthesizing the content with the presentation layer and then making sure they’re delivered in an efficient manner. The end result, if we’ve done our jobs correctly, is great storytelling that’ll make end users feel something and nudge them to take the next step.

It’s easy to get lost in the nuts and bolts of what we do each day. The details are incredibly important and we’re committed to delivering on a high standard of quality. But it’s critical for us to take the time to frame our work as contributions to a story. It’s a great test for filtering out the non-essential elements and helping us focus our time and efforts on the components that will resonate with our audience.

So we tell lots of stories. Our landing pages, our emails, our Facebook ad creative, etc. But it doesn’t stop there. As we’ve played an increasing role in helping our clients with digital marketing, we’ve also had to become adept at telling the story of how our stories were doing.

Well, isn’t that just reporting, you might ask. You know, a Powerpoint/Keynote deck with some numbers pulled from Google Analytics and wherever else you can get data. You get on a conference call and walk the client through it. Once a month, once week, or whatever the agreed upon interval is, right?

I would argue that a good way to diminish a client relationship is to do a half-assed job on reporting. A good way to grow the relationship is to embrace the reporting opportunity as a way to tell stories that will assure, inspire, and excite the client.

Here’s the diagram of the layers that make up stories for the client:

Stories for the Client

Putting together compelling stories for the client is hard work. First, we need to make sure we’re gathering the right data and that the data is accurate. Most of our data center around user behavior (what they’re clicking on, how much time they’re spending, etc.), business KPIs (sales, average order value, etc.), and platform metrics (CPC/CPM for paid, site speed, etc.). Note that data by itself is fairly useless. It’s just numbers and letters stored in columns and rows. You can make it a point to have as much data as possible, but without interpretation, it will just sit there, cold and meaningless.

This is why analysis is so critical. This requires making sense of the data through a variety of methods. We may combine different sets of data, arrange and group them in various ways, clean up data that we deem to be noise, and add some formulas to compare or sum up different categories. We may even create charts and tables to help us visualize data in formats that are easier to process.

When we’ve put in the time analyzing the data, then it’s time to take a step back to see if we can spot trends, identify opportunities, and make actionable recommendations. This is where we prove our value, and the strength of our insights will determine how successfully we can instill confidence in our clients as they make decisions on activities to greenlight and budgets to spend.

The storytelling we do for clients is most common in the periodic reporting we have scheduled each month or every few weeks. However, the same layers apply when we prepare for client meetings such as project kickoffs, various workshops, and Strategy Presentations during our Catalyst/Discovery engagements.

Everyone is a Storyteller

In the 21st century, the ways we tell stories continue to proliferate as new technologies emerge and our interactions with people take on new formats. I believe that by embracing our role as storytellers and continuing to develop our skills with that in mind, we continue to position ourselves as valuable partners for our clients.