A mission liberates professionals

Many employees consider the formulation of a vision for their organisation as a time- and money-consuming process without apparent use. Why do managers need endless meetings to come up with a few pretty but hollow phrases, which the workers could have written down in ten minutes? The cynicism felt in many organisations with regard to vision statements, mission papers and key values is understandable. After these are presented with much song and dance and translated into a new corporate design and shiny posters, they often disappear in the bottom drawer. Regular operational targets, rather than the vision, determine the agenda and the managers’ sense of direction. And where mission is indeed taken seriously, employees are appraised, not just on the results of their work but also on their compliance with the vision and the values. No staff member is waiting for that.

Why does the company exist?
There is a good reason for companies to articulate their mission and vision, however. In their book Built to Last Jim Collins and Jerry Porras compared a number of companies that performed exceptionally well for a long time, with companies in the same market that had far less good results. The leaders of the excelling companies were striving for a more permanent value to exceed their mere self-interest. Leaders of mediocre companies set more material targets, such as boosting sales, profitability or market share. Johnson & Johnson considers it its prime responsibility to support physicians, nurses and patients and believes that financial results will be reasonable as long as it does this well. Compare that with ICI, a British pharmaceutical company whose goal is to become the leader in generating shareholder value through market leadership, top technology and a competitive cost structure. Collins and Porras conclude that leaders who build a top company understand that it is more important to know who they are and why they are there, than where they are headed – the world around them changes continually, anyway.
In a time where companies have to adjust quickly to changing markets, an organisation’s ultimate reason for existence offers something to hold on to. An organisation’s mission stretches well beyond its (financial) results and defines the difference it wants to make in the larger society. The mission is quintessentially rooted in a company’s profession or trade. At Boeing, for example, staff members love planes and want to build the best and most beautiful ones. Vision, goals and tasks are derived from their mission and should contribute to that ultimate assignment.

Major challenge
In 2008, 35 prominent management authors met to formulate the main challenges for future managers. In their view, the main challenge is to ensure that work serves a higher – noble and socially relevant – purpose. Leaders help build a community of purpose. As such, a clear and appealing mission helps employees to place their everyday activities in a meaningful perspective. If people can relate their daily work to a shared mission, their – sometimes fragmented – tasks become significant.
There is yet another reason to formulate a mission. In his book Obliquity, John Kay asserts that complex business objectives are usually not sharply definable. In an uncertain world where even formulating the main challenges may be hard for a company, where multiple and often contradictory goals have to be achieved and where every strategic step may have unpredictable consequences because people are mutually dependent and interact with each other, linear thinking in terms of goals and means will do little good. Goals are more succesfully achieved through a series of experiments that make the company increasingly aware of what it is it wants to achieve.

Do not quantify
A higher purpose (or mission), intermediary goals and concrete action cannot be completely separated. Managers often lack a comprehensive overview of all the relevant factors when taking a decision. Heading for concrete goals or trying to quantify results will actually distract from an ultimate mission, such as providing innovative education or excellent service. What we mean by innovative education and how it can be achieved are questions to which there are different answers, depending on function or role in the company. This is why staff members, esepcially professionals, should have far-reaching decision-making powers, so they can reinterpret their organisation’s mission for every new situation and translate it into concrete action accordingly.
Viewed like this, a mission or vision no longer needs to be an instrument to control employees’ performance, but actually a way of giving them more freedom to find creative solutions to their organisation’s most complex challenges.

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