Why You Should Write a Manifesto for Everything You Do


Why You Should Write a Manifesto for Everything You Do

Amber Johnson
Amber Johnson works at the intersection of marketing, culture, and leadership as the Chief Communications Officer for the Center for Values-Driven Leadership.

I’m part of a generation of marketers who grew up on Jerry Maguire. We all dream of our manifesto moment, when we write all night to get the vision just right. Those kind of moments, we assume, are to be savored and saved for really important ideas. The life-changing ideas. The stand on your desk, yell at the world, then quit your job kind of ideas.

Recently, though, I’ve decided that we’re thinking too big. By reserving manifestos for only the biggest moments in life, we’re missing out on their persuasive power. Who are we trying to persuade? Both ourselves and our customers.

First—what is a manifesto? A manifesto is a public declaration of your future reality. In business, manifestos can masquerade by various other names, including vision statements, aspiration statements, or provocative propositions.

Here’s why it’s time for you to have your manifesto moment, and why you should start with every big project on your desk.

Manifestos align us around purpose

When a project team takes time to write a manifesto for their new product, idea, or initiative, the result is a team that is on the same page about the project’s future. This clarity helps team members drive in the same direction.

A “superordinate shared goal” is the first objective of any leader, especially when communicating across boundaries, says Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, in her book Teaming. But a shared goal isn’t enough: the goal must elevate the task to a higher purpose. Manifestos can help teams get clear on direction by identifying the true purpose of the project, the shared goal or the “why,” as Simon Sinek calls it.

Manifestos inspire

Status quo has no place in your manifesto. When we write a manifesto, we’re calling up a vision of what we most want the future to look like. That future should inspire you and others to stretch and grow.

When we coach others on writing manifestos, we ask them to write it in the present tense, as if the future is already here. We encourage them to make sure their manifesto reflects three characteristics: It should be provocative, challenging the status quo, and stretching your team beyond what is currently possible. It should be grounded, reflecting the best of your team’s strengths and capabilities. And it should be desired, something you truly want to happen. Get that mix of provocative, grounded, and desired right, and you’ll have inspirational genius.

Manifestos create the future

First manifestos help you get clear on your purpose, then they inspire you to reach for it. Remarkably, manifestos also help you activate the future. The future begins to materialize in the very conversations you have while you discuss your manifesto with colleagues, or write it on your own, Jerry Maguire style.

In our consulting practice at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, we use the phrase, “words create worlds” to describe this phenomenon. Here’s an example I use to explain what we mean: have you ever had the experience of a colleague or friend telling you, “You look happy today.” Or, maybe it was the reverse, and they said something like, “You look tired.” Perhaps you had not thought about how you felt or looked, but as soon as the friend spoke you started feeling happy, or tired. The simple suggestion that you were happy made you happier. Being told you look tired makes you feel tired. The words created your world, at least in some small way.

When teams spend time envisioning their future by writing a manifesto, the words of the manifesto begin to create the positive world they envision. It can be a powerful team experience that takes little time but yields a big benefit.

How to write your first manifesto

So where do we start with writing manifestos? I recommend starting small. Don’t save this for your Jerry Maguire moment—write a manifesto for the project you’re working on today. Write a manifesto for how you plan to parent, when you get home from work this evening. Get your colleagues together and write a manifesto for the client proposal that’s due next week.

There are four primary steps to writing your manifesto, which my colleague Jim Ludema and I wrote about in greater detail at this link:

  1. Hold a brainstorming session to identify what you truly want
  2. Identify the most compelling and desired aspects of the future you want
  3. Create a first draft of your manifesto
  4. Test, revise, and publicize your manifesto

That last part—publicizing your manifesto—is important. By definition, manifestos are public declarations. They’re meant to provide direction and accountability, so they must be shared. We provide examples of how to publicize your manifesto, as well as sample manifestos, on our blog.

During a time of transition, advertising executive Lenora Rand began to research personal manifestos to inspire her own future. The manifestos she found produced important results for their writers as they “tried to capture a few words that gave them more focus, empowered them and helped them prioritize their time and effort.” For some, it was a way of finding their voice once again.

Focus, empowerment, prioritization of time and effort: those are just the factors we need more of in our daily lives, and manifestos can help us find them. For too long we’ve failed to take advantage of the power of manifestos by assuming they should be reserved for life’s bigger moments.

Forget that way of thinking and write your first manifesto today. You’ll find the process sharpens your focus, cements your intention, and builds excitement and energy for you and your team. Go stand on your desk and tell your colleagues it’s time for your manifesto moment.