The Nun and the Greek

This is my first week at a new job. Last week, I said a lot of goodbyes and had occasion to compose a farewell letter to the company I’d come to know and love. In that letter, I left them a piece of advice that I hope they take to heart. I’d like to tell you a bit about that advice. It was:

No money, no mission AND first, do no harm.

Jason Knight in Farewell email to Sapphire Digital

Several years ago, our CEO Heyward Donigan told us “No money, no mission.” She had heard this phrase from a nun who (I make up) was impressing upon her the importance of demonstrating an impact that produced revenue. Too little of this kind of impact, and that lofty mission statement never comes to be. Heyward used that statement several times to remind us of the nun’s lesson. It made perfect sense to me, yet it only felt like a piece of the puzzle — a single bookend.

It felt incomplete because it was non-specific as to the how an organization should go about creating that impact. Conceivably, two separate groups could go about creating a profitable product but use very different means of making it happen. One would constrict their behavior to a set of actions that only produced positive repercussions and another that chose any means necessary to achieve their aims. No, there was indeed something missing. It needed a pithy way of saying, “Yes, we want to produce revenue in service of the mission, but we won’t cross this line.”

After much thought, I remembered the hippocratic oath. More specifically, I thought of how it is commonly abbreviated:

First, do no harm.

This short phrase resonated strongly. In the pursuit of creating revenue-generating impact, do not cause harm to us, our users, our customers, or the broader society. Imagine how crucially this principle would impact a starry-eyed executive or developer who feels the pressure to make good on forecasts made to the board or the desires of a manager. When the going got tough, the temptation would be to remember only “no money, no mission” and make compromise after compromise in order to secure the almighty dollar. Without the Hippocratic bookend, a subtle pragmatism lurks ready to turn well-meaning intention into a “ends justify the means” rationale.

Do you put your “mission” at risk by limiting the things you will or won’t pursue?

More than likely. By nature, each phrase limits and focuses action. You will pursue only those activities which advance your mission. Further, you will not choose means that you expect are harmful to yourself or others. If all you know to do seems likely to cause harm, you will do nothing. If all actions known or open to you fall outside these principles, your enterprise will seem doomed to fail.

Will adhering to both principles reduce your impact?

Probably, at least at first. As you scrupulously choose not to pursue that deal or produce that feature, you will be limiting the revenue you collect in the short term. Don’t forget that you will need to resist the temptation to overwork your staff. When you see the signs of harm manifesting, you must make hard choices. It might mean less work gets done or that your staff members decide to move to a less stressful work environment; don’t overlook, you are first, doing no harm to yourself as well. What is gained by these principled decisions is not often valued as highly as it should be. Stepping over revenue or salary for laudable reasons confers trust and demonstrates moral fibre. Never are these currencies listed on a balance sheet, yet when they are lacking investors, bosses, and clients tend to get…nervous.

Will adhering to both principles mean you never transgress either of them?

I’d be surprised if it did. Simply espousing a principle doesn’t mean that principle will always be followed perfectly. What it will do is establish an area within which people are free to act fruitfully and in good conscience. When an action produces an impact outside of either line, it soon becomes apparent and corrections may be made. Having both principles is necessary if you are to know when you are dealing both effectively and positively.

I must say openly that I have never had to make payroll nor have I borne the burden of fiduciary responsibility. You may think that it is therefore easy for me to say these things. It has been not easy, I assure you. Holding to these principles has cost me at least one job, humbled me in front of my children and spouse, and laid me low before almighty God countless times. On one occasion, a difficult choice I made to do the right thing was literally a matter of life and death. I believe that one should:

Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

Jordan Peterson, “12 Rules for Life”

I’m thankful to Heyward for the lesson she taught me and for all my hard-working colleagues who did seemingly impossible things. I hope my contribution to what she said will serve to bring them life in the success they find.

jknight

Jason is a developer, Scrum Master, writer, teacher, coach, husband, father, and community leader out of Tulsa Oklahoma. He's been delivering software since 2007 and absolutely loves the values and principles of agility especially as given form by the Scrum framework.