I missed the John Lonergan interview on the Late Late show but bought a copy of his autobiography The Governor. It provides a great insight into the prison regime in Ireland. Lonergans’ philosophy, that every individual has potential, regardless of the crime committed, is hardwired into the book. He is also a strong advocate for decent treatment for prisoners: “Overcrowding is not just about beds…The daily regime in prison is seriously impoverished as a direct result of overcrowding, and prisons are now just warehousing offenders. If present trends continue, prisons will be little more than centers of human degradation and stand no chance of ever becoming places where prisoners can be set on a better path”.
Consistent View: John Lonergan has been consistent in this view for years. I met him in Mountjoy when I worked as President of the National College of Ireland. NCI tried to forge a link with ex-offenders (the college has a long history of connecting with non-traditional students) and he was committed to finding ways for prisoners to piece their lives back together.
Exit Rationale: So, why did Lonergan leave the prison service? Partly timing; at the end of a long career, it was time to move on. But it was also due to a philosophy clash with senior civil servants in the Department of Justice and the political establishment. His frustration with the justice authorities is peppered throughout the book and provides a brilliant example of what might be termed mission clash. In the consulting world I have witnessed this many times.
Mission Clash: Mission Clash occurs when key interest groups have opposing views of the central purpose of an organization. In the case of Mountjoy, the John Lonergan School is redemptive while the Department of Justice philosophy could be labeled custodial. It’s not just a play on words. There are enormous structural implications. The type of organization needed to get prisoners ready to play a useful societal role, is very different to one that operates on an underpinning belief that punishment for past crimes and deprivation is the raison d’être. A lack of facilities and a tough, disciplinary regime supposedly helps to keep people out of prison in the future – by offering a negative incentive. The two views are diametrically opposed (with little evidence-based work completed to prove the effectiveness of either approach). In all organizations, there is potential for mission clash. Where it occurs it’s usually a source of frustration and confusion – albeit it’s seldom formally articulated.
Intellectual Disability: Some years ago I worked with an organization operating in the intellectual disability arena. The clients presented with a range of conditions, ranging from mild through moderate to profound intellectual disability. The particular organization was struggling to interpret its mission. Was it to support individual clients in maximizing their potential? This had a number of risks attached – e.g. for clients who wanted to live outside of the hospital environment, for those who had reached sexual maturity etc. An alternative viewpoint was that the central organization purpose was to ‘house’ clients in a safe, protected and, to some extent, unseen environment. My advice was simple. I told them that they could not have a dual mandate. An organization choice needed to be made. They faced a fork in the road.
Aim Point: Locking on to a central organization purpose is not easy. The conundrums faced are seldom clearly articulated and often have to be inferred by ‘the way things are done around here’. Yet, it is a truism to state that a key measure of organization effectiveness is how well this central purpose is understood. What’s needed is an aim point against which organization performance is measured. It doesn’t matter whether this is labeled as Mission, Vision, Purpose, Aim Point or something else (there are no universally accepted definitions of these terms). What does matter is the clarity of direction, which this provides. People march to the sound of a clear trumpet.
Internal Politics: Lack of clarity of purpose i.e. the absence of an agreed aim point, is a recipe for unending internal politics (‘I think we should go South. Going North is ridiculous’) and collective confusion. Here we touch on another ‘Law of Effective Organization’. Ambiguity creates anxiety, which in turn lowers performance. Yet perhaps the greatest loss when an organization is directionally unclear is underachievement against potential. Why settle for good when you can be great? Q: Who wants to play for West Ham United rather than Chelsea? A: No-one.
This is not an argument that organizations should automatically choose a lofty or wonderfully noble mission; you need to select an appropriate aim point, rather than something which is a fiction. However, it is an argument that organizations should be crystal clear on their mission. This unleashes energy throughout the workforce – providing you with an extra 5th gear in the car.
Multiple Missions: Those who argue in favour of multiple missions (‘We should go north and South’) are simply confused. To restate a core point made in an earlier blog, strategy represents a choice between competing options. A strategy that could be labeled ‘we will be brilliant at everything’, usually results in confusion and mediocrity.
Sense of Mission: It’s not about developing a mission statement as a clever piece of copy writing. It’s about creating a compelling purpose, which is shared among the management team and staff. That’s the leadership role. And it’s most often seen in the negative. Show me an organization that is unclear on its’ core purpose and I will show you dysfunctionality and scattergun movement. The message is clear. Creating an organization aim point is a critically important part of the success mix. Release the force.
Paul Mooney PhD.