Purpose vs vision and mission

By Mark Di Somma

Purpose can't be filedI hope the days of vision and mission statements are nearly over. They’re the paperwork of traditional management models. They’re strategic compliance, and as such, they get deliberated over at great length and then forgotten. For the most part, they’re also self-centred – all about what the organisation wants to achieve for itself, all about how it intends to achieve whatever it deems important. They often don’t suit the much more open, interactive, social ways in which business is increasingly being done.

Visions and missions are words – sometimes very nice words – but that’s it. As Truman Capote once said, “that’s not writing, that’s just typing”.

A clear and vivid purpose on the other hand is much more demanding. It’s collective and individual. It stalks the organisation with a conscience. It describes what a brand knows must change in the world and the role the brand sees for itself in helping to achieve that change. It explains why people come to work. It gives each person a reason to be proud. It calibrates and guides thinking. It’s impatient. It’s optimistic. It’s the benchmark against which all actions are measured. It refuses to shut up.

The old benchmark: What purpose does this task/idea/approach serve?

The new benchmark: How does this task/idea/approach serve our purpose?

In actual fact, a purpose is a company’s mindset strategy. It determines the headspace in which people come to work and in which a company goes to market and competes. A wonderful purpose lays out an extraordinary intention that separates that brand from other brands around it.

Get your purpose right – and you have a cause that is powerful enough for people to leap out of bed every weekday morning and get to work. They are quite literally looking to make a change to the world they believe in because, as Hugh MacLeod expressed it so perfectly, “Life is too short not to do something that matters”.

This morning – what on earth did you come to work to change? The answer to that should never, ever just be filed.

Acknowledgements

Image titled “Purpose” taken by Sidewalk flying (Seth Sawyers), sourced from Flickr

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4 thoughts on “Purpose vs vision and mission

  1. CSR has failed. Now what? – Mark Di Somma

  2. How do you write a great purpose? – Mark Di Somma

  3. In the common argot of the internet – you’re doing it wrong.

    First up, I think you’ve just created a false division to allow you to make a comment on how a mission statement should be formulated. The mission statement should *be* the purpose – boiled down to unequivocal terms.

    This is usually the coupling of two things – the commercial proposition, and the core competitive difference that you are going to make. This should be easy to write – or else you’ve not done enough thinking.

    I do agree that too many mission statements are useless – they are too lofty, or fail to unpack what they mean at the core. They aren’t grown from seed to form cultures that it is easy to identify with. They are allowed to die under paperwork.

    One other note – Capote made the snide remark about typing re Kerouac, who had a very different style to his own. Ironically, I see the zen style of his writing aligning more with your definition of purpose above – a way of being.

    • I’ve always loved the Capote comment, although I thought it was made in a review of Salinger. (Perhaps I got that wrong.) Anyway, to me, a purpose is a more ambitious mandate for change (and by extension competitive difference) – and as such I think it reports to a bigger agenda than the traditional mission statement because its scope is broader. A mission sets out how a company wishes to achieve its own agenda. A purpose sets out why a company can and should change the world.

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