The Plaque on The Wall

This plaque is not the one mentioned in the story.  This one is from the foyer of the Virgin Atlantic office in Johannesburg.
Some are beautifully illustrated with modern typeface and graphic design. Others are boring, black and white, and with as much flair as a concrete brick. I am talking about the (in)famous mission statement plaque on the wall. Yes that bastion of the strategic management boom of the 1980's and 1990's. That shrine to the idea that writing something down and framing it suddenly sparks passion in the breasts of the dedicated followers of flashy.

Yet often in reality these plaques, even the ones engraved on brass plates, are nothing more than pacifiers to the sucking reflex of leaders who have no idea about any mission beyond EBIT, EBITA or EBITDA (and these are not noble acronyms for Every-Body Is Talented, Diverse and Astounding). But rather than flail my mind helplessly in the quagmire of cynicism, let me tell this following story of an organization.

It's Friday afternoon. The diligent people from HR have collected all the prestik from the flipcharts and brownpaper on the walls of the conference hall. Empty mineral water bottles litter the floor, between scraps of paper and mint wrappers. The staff of the venue are denuding the white clad tables and coiling the thin black audio-visual snakes.

Amongst the products of a two-day planning workshop are some crudely constructed cardboard models, held together with magazine clippings and sticky tape, badly annotated with glitter and permanent markers. The most senior HR professional is tasked with transporting these humble art-forms back to HQ to be used "later". Pieces of art that, in the moment, expressed the aspirations of an ideal future picture of how the organization could be. The tentative hopes of hundreds of people, poured into material objects, and yet somehow animating them with life beyond their apparent silence and stillness.

Shrugging, the custodian carries them to his car, drives them to the office and stores them safely in a locked room. Dusting off his hands, he heads for the weekend and forgets about art.

Three weeks pass, and the MD decides that it is now "later". Where is our future-art? Here, sir; in that corner over there, between the photocopy paper and the toner, just peeking out from below the point-of-sale banners. It looks like some of them have been a bit a crushed since last month, but don't worry - I took a photo of each one on my phone just before I packed --

The sound of thunder rumbles in the storeroom. Lightening flashes and a torrential downpour of words lands on our diligent servant of the human resources of the company. The short form of the storm goes something like this: "You do NOT treat people like this! These models are not cardboard - they are the dreams and efforts of hundreds of people, poured in a few minutes onto paper. We are not carelessly storing cardboard here - we are honouring people. You do NOT treat people like this."

Perhaps it is not too surprising then that a quick glance through the open door of the office of the MD reveals a plaque on the wall with a mantra inscribed, in 72pt Arial, "Every-Body Is Talented, Diverse and Astounding".

There are many mantras that can be framed and plaqued, from Vision and Values, or Principles and Purpose, to Mission and Modus-Operandi. What we choose to put there is important, but not as important as this: The plaque on the wall should reflect the DNA of the organization, as exemplified by its leaders. Plaques do not drive the DNA - they can't.

(This story is a dramatization of an actual event and an actual company, and the idea for the article comes from my friend Gordon Chilvers.)