What’s in a word: Mission

old fashioned tape recorder with smoke coming out of it

In this post which originally appeared on his blog, SWF-supported PhD student Keith Elford writes about the meaning of ‘mission’

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Nearly every organisation has a “mission statement”, to the extent that the concept provokes some cynicism. This is usually, I assume, because, as with “values statements”, mission statements are the sort of thing one now has to have, irrespective of their truthfulness or utility or however banal the sentiment captured by them. Maybe mission statements are sometimes composed and adopted without much thought, care or commitment. The written results are sometimes unimpressive. But it does not alter one of the basics of organisational success – that it is essential to understand and adhere to a clear understanding of what the organisation exists for.

I’m reflecting on the meaning and significance of some of the words used much in organisations, particularly in the context of strategic planning and change management. They are frequently used differently from one organisation to another. “Mission” is not, in fact, a word I use a lot, but many of my clients do and I have come to see that its use has some benefits. I speak more of “purpose”. This is clearly a word with a similar meaning to mission and I do not intend to insist on some rather artificial distinction between the two.

But, in practice, I tend to use “purpose” to describe a higher order intention, in a way that is closer perhaps to the way some use “vision”, as a way of describing the world they want to see. (1) The NASA “vision”, for example, is “To improve life here, To extend life to there, To find life beyond”. The Disney purpose is about making people happy. Are such grand statements helpful? I think they can be. They can enable the organisation to avoid the trap of becoming preoccupied with the present, with what they do now – and in a fast-changing world this may be crucial. If Kodak had not defined itself in terms of a particular technology it might have survived the digital revolution in rather better shape than it did. One of my clients has a purpose of helping the poor and needy. The organisation’s business is providing residential care for the elderly. During a recent turnaround the rediscovery of the larger purpose freed the thinking of the organisation even though the focus of activity did not, in the end, change.

Mission statements, in contrast, tend to bring grand aspirations a little closer to earth. They focus more on what an organisation actually does.

NASA’s is: “To understand and protect our home planet, To explore the universe and search for life, To inspire the next generation of explorers . . . as only NASA can”. One of my current clients (a charity) has a mission statement which describes the activity, the location and the target group. These more functional (if still aspirational) statements have value in clarifying the specific role played by the organisation in the achievement of what might be a very broad or high vision or purpose. Composing them requires that an organisation thinks about its key competences, its unique focus, its resources, its business model.

Is this helpful? Does it matter? There are plenty of people in organisations who will find all this a little high falutin’ perhaps. I suggest that, in fact, it is highly practical. This is a conversation about the identity of the organisation. If you want to change it, you’d better understand it first.

But it also speaks to the question of ownership. Who really owns an organisation? Who makes it what it is? Legally, it might be owned by a group of trustees, a hedge fund or two, an individual or the government. Actually, it is what it is because of all the people involved, staff and customers or users especially: in some cases, it belongs, in a sense to the whole community. An organisation that stays around for any length of time becomes what Selznick called an “institution”, that is, a social phenomenon with a distinct identity, valued for itself. (2) It is no longer simply an instrument of profit or utility. Over time, that identity takes on the feel of an independent or given imperative, like a vocation, like a mission.

If you want an organisation to flourish over time and through change you had better find a way of doing so that understands and preserves what is essential about it, what it is for. That is a matter in which all stakeholders have both an influence and an interest. Purpose and mission statements can help you to do so. You can always refuse the mission, but it is likely to be at some cost.


(1) Described in my last blog: https://elfordconsulting.co.uk/general/whats-in-a-word-vision-the-process-matters-more-than-the-statement/

(2) Philip Selznick, Leadership in Administration: A Sociological Perspective, University of California Press, 1957