Leaders are admonished to “start with the why” and define a mission that clarifies why the organization exists.
Leaders are even asked to define a pro-social mission (often called “purpose”) that not only includes business-related goals but broader, societal goals.
One example is Microsoft, which seeks to empower “every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more”.
I am all for having a clear and inspirational mission or purpose. But the main problem doesn’t seem to be the formulation of the mission, but the implementation of it.
In a study of 474 executives, nearly all agreed with the value of having a clearly defined purpose. Yet only 37% agreed that their business model and operations were well-aligned with their organization’s purpose.
In a survey of over 9,000 employees, only 55% stated that they felt that their job was making a meaningful contribution to the world.
It’s not wrong to have lofty aspirations. But it can be counter-productive and lead to widespread cynicism if one does little to turn the aspirations into reality.
So we should ask ourselves what is causing this gap.
I have been looking into the literature on missions and purpose to see what advice it offers.
There are of course multiple potential causes of the gap. But one thing I have found is that the implementation problem is often framed as a communication challenge.
As an example, take the stories in the book on “Deep Purpose” by Ranjay Gulati. His examples range from rather mundane techniques (posting the purpose on the walls of company facilities) to more heroic attempts at crafting what he calls a “master narrative” to portray the company as “pursuing a sacred, transcendent quest” (p. 99).
However, communication is necessary, but not sufficient.
What seems to be missing is a method to actually align the organization with the mission and purpose.
This is where organization design comes in. Most employees in an organization belong to a sub-unit—for example, a team or department. We know from research (e.g., this paper) that most people identify more strongly with their immediate team than with the overall organization.
So your organization may have an eloquent CEO doing road shows to communicate the new, inspirational values. But this may matter less for people than what is going on around them and how they perceive the purpose of their own unit—as opposed to the purpose of the overall organization.
This has led me and my colleague Shawn Pope (assistent professor at EMLV in Paris) to consider how unit mandates are formulated.
Our key assumption is that the mandates of all units need to be aligned with the organization’s mission and purpose (if we are to have any hope of implementing the mission and purpose).
As I have stated before, if you really mean it, you have to formalize it.
I consider the unit’s “function” as the essence of its mandate. The function describes what the unit is supposed to deliver.
This is something that we should document and discuss in any organization re-design process. Below I include simplified examples from three organizations that I have worked with in the past.
The unit mandate may also (and probably should) include other elements, such as a description of the unit’s scope of activities and decision making authority. But these are largely implications of the key function.
In the next blog post, I will describe our framework in a bit more detail and discuss how one can align the mandates of individual units at different levels with the organization’s overall mission and purpose.
Image by upklyak on Freepik