05/01/2012 05:30 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

Do You Really Know What Your Business Does?

Of course you know what your business or organization does. Right? After all, it's what you do every day. But I caution that if you've worked for your current organization for more than a couple of years, you may now suffer from what Chip and Dan Health called 'The Curse of Knowledge' in their book Made to Stick.

Over the years I have noted that, at some point, phrases that are meaningless to those outside the industry become so familiar that they lose sight of what it was to NOT know certain things about what their company does.

How can you tell if you're guilty of this? Take this simple test:

  • Do you understand every acronym that is used by your organization?
  • Have you ever let out an audible sigh when someone asks you what one means?
  • When you explain your company's product or service to your parents, your relatives and your children do you get the feeling that they don't really appreciate the importance?

The fact is we so often get caught up on the tactics of what our companies or organizations make day to day that we lose sight completely of what it is they really do -- focusing on the specifics and losing the larger picture of what is really important.

Manufacturing companies get caught in this trap, reporting in their annual reports and presentation in great detail about the number, weight and volume of the materials that they produce, without realizing that these are often interim products that have little or no meaning to people outside the industry. A baking company can share the cubic volume of the batter it produces but it is far more effective -- and important -- to share the number of loaves that they bake each day or year. In fact, even that figure -- often so large to be meaningless -- doesn't offer a meaningful description of what truly matters. Instead, tell the world (including employees) that the company provides the food for literally thousands of people a day.

The not-for-profit sector is not immune from this, which is ironic, as they have as their mission improving a social cause, but will far too often position themselves by their activities (measuring something, increasing awareness of a disease or problem, raising money to help certain populations) and not their impact on those issues. 'We raised 5 million dollars for the fight against HIV/AIDS' is not the same as 'we funded research that has produced medicines that have extended the lives of 20,000 people living with HIV and produced informational materials that have cut the infection rate in half.' Which one would you be more inclined to support with your time, talent and treasure?

Over the years, I have worked with a number of organizations to encourage them to focus on the impact that what they do has on the lives of people in the community and around the world in their internal and external messages. The result has been crisper messaging, more empowered and enthusiastic employees who are better able to tell the organization's story, and -- key for those of us who are committed to and work in the arena of sustainability -- it defines where they will find their stakeholders -- and the greatest opportunity to do environmental, social and economic good.