Mission statements. Empty words or a true mission, providing vital purpose, direction and meaning for colleagues and clients alike?
I recently listened to the HBR podcast about purpose-driven organisations. I was partly surprised at the impact a true purpose can make to an organisation, partly gratified that the article’s learnings seem to align so well with much of the work we do in the ASE.
So, what is it about purpose? Why does it matter?
The podcast starts with an interview from the President of a company that didn’t ‘believe’ in being purpose driven. He did however have a problem. People management, training and incentives weren’t improving performance. It wasn’t until the recession in 2008 when things changed and employees had to work to save the organisation, and their jobs. Their purpose changed, their motivation changed, their willingness to contribute changed. They brought a new energy and creativity to their game and the company thrived. They had a purpose. Luckily the President learned from what happened and they changed their ways; they discovered their true purpose (a purpose is discovered, not created).
Purpose; the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists, it seems, creates meaning and pride, which in turn brings more energy. It matters for organisations because humans aren’t as self-interested as we give ourselves credit for. When we believe in something we want it to work and we will go the ‘extra mile’ to make it happen. I couldn’t put it any better myself than the interviewee ‘If you want a company to be excellent, you have to draw people’s discretionary energy, their extra energy. Well what do you give your extra energy to? I give it to things I care about and believe in’.
In the ASE we believe in starting from purpose and intent and it is surprising how many senior leaders come to us wanting to skip it; ‘we all know why we are here, we need to get to the roadmap and the action points’. We use our models and our experience to illustrate that without purpose, there is no point in task and without intent, chances are whatever you build won’t be used. Even with our experience and knowledge, it’s sometimes hard to persuade the senior sponsors that a day focusing on why you exist is a valid use of time. Often, we see it squeezed out of a design in preference for getting to ‘Act’, the mission statement written in isolation back in 1997 will suffice.
So, is a mission statement really just empty words? The answer is it depends. If it reflects a true, authentic purpose, created by the people and drives the behaviours and tasks within that organisation, no; it has meaning, bringing a richer, empowered and abundant culture of creative problem solving. If it’s lip service, a job ticked off long ago, chances are the opportunity for mediocrity is all yours.