Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A personality but no name

We have just returned from 4 days of hangin' with friends in the northern Victorian town on Wangaratta.

Monday provided an opportunity (what fantastic weather!) to make our way over to Beechworth, a half-hour drive away.

We spent the best part of the day lugging around strollers and provisions for 5 kids (it looked like a sort of amateur Andean caravan, without the llamas).

Beechworth wears its history loud and proud. From Lake Sambell's nod to the town's history in gold (this spot is a true picture of beauty from ashes), to the remaining lock-up in the Police Paddock and the old courthouse (where Ned Kelly was committed to stand trial for the murder of Thomas Lonigan), its present-day 'face to the world' is distinctive because of its history.

There are things that can be said about Beechworth that cannot be said of any old town. The town's history (well-researched, recorded and published by the local people) have become a foundation for its positioning into the future.

If you have ever spent any time looking at the mission and vision statements of companies or public entities (local councils come to mind for me), you will notice how many of these statements about 'Who we are' / 'What we do' are generic and abstract. You could engineer a simple template with a series of positive assertions, and 'Just add your organisation's name in place of X'.

The following comes randomly from a particular local government website:

"Council is committed to overseeing the continued growth of the City and ensuring high quality of life for residents and visitors. This role is guided by Council's Vision and Mission Statements.

OUR VISION: A vibrant city of lifestyle and opportunity.

OUR MISSION: To manage and promote X’s diversity, lifestyle and opportunity through innovation and excellence."

Such statements tell us next-to-nothing. It's when you start to dig around in the organisation's policy and strategy documents -- particularly those that have been formulated well around good demographic work, and not simply focus groups -- that you begin to uncover the unique personality of the organisation and its challenges and hopes ... and how it would measure 'success'.

But many organisations struggle to express this in any meaningful way in their most public statements. It seems instead that many of us resort to picking up The Big Book of Mission and Vision Statements and labour hard and long (often with extended argumentation and consultation) to develop a series of statements that sounds like ... everyone else's.

We find it hard to say what is uniquely 'us' and what this offers the world. But we do know that if a vision statement is going to pass muster it should contain words like 'excellence', 'hard-working', 'innovative', 'honesty', 'integrity', 'world leader'.

I wonder what would happen if you got a group of politicians and business people together and asked them to craft a vision statement for Beechworth? Would the story of the place (its personality) come through, or would 'Vision Statement' mode kick in? I wonder ...

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