“Mission and vision statements can be great means to give an organization focus, coherence, and direction. But often they don’t.”

Jeroen Kraaijenbrink, Forbes

Our organizational culture research (2018-2020) we discovered that only 2% of the interviewees remembered the vision and 21% remembered the mission of their organization. Most did not know the difference between the two. Organizational values and strategy didn’t score much higher either. As one of the interviewers puts it: “I did a survey within our team and saw that there is a problem with relating to the strategy with different interpretations – and it makes it difficult to make decisions that are aligned with strategy”

In a global dataset only 21% knew the mission and 2% knew the vision.
Source: Framework of Caring Corporate Culture, Kola & Koivukoski, 2020

Most organizations have spent resources on corporate jargon without reasonable return on investment. If people don’t remember the mission and vision statements or strategy lingo that are aiming at invigorating and engaging the organizations for better results, why do leaders continue invest time in honing them? Because everyone else is doing the same. Who dares to challenge the business gurus or the crowd? One cannot help but wonder, if this is a fear- of-missing-out -phenomenon in the context of corporate strategy and leadership?

Purpose: In complex times – simplify!

If mission and vision do not add value what would be the alternative approach? Some years back the term purpose emerged to partially replace the earlier used mission and vision statements. In some cases, it was even added on top of the existing empty words. Search in Harvard Business Review today finds 1 443 articles or books talking about purpose. McKinsey’s library shows 14 354 articles about purpose. But what is the role of purpose in today’s strategic management?

 When seeing the term purpose emerging I was both happy and doubtful. On one hand it was good to see that there are other people who want to move on from the ancient religious or military concepts that we have used in organizations for a few generations. On the other hand, I was doubting that we might have found “new clothes to the emperor” and are just replacing old terms with a new one with little or no change. So there was work to do on my thoughts and emotions to give the term purpose a change and continue with further definition.

Purpose: “Why you do something or why something exists” – Cambridge Dictionary. 

Language and terms can make the difference when used wisely. Replacing old terms with new ones doesn’t make the difference if it becomes another password or business jargon without a specific means of putting it to work. As we in our Ecosystem Handbook  state that well-articulated purpose can act as inspiration but without perspiration the impact remains low.

It doesn’t matter how we want to name the reason why organizations exist or why we do something. What matters is how we can operationalize the reason to exist.

My process to make peace with the term purpose was the following:

  • First, starting with a bit humorous approach:  I have practiced mindfulness for some tens of years and recently done  52 weeks’ exercises for cultivating a good life in the way the Stoics taught. Approaching purpose was an excellent opportunity to practice to distance my emotions from an unpleasant term. 
  • Second, accepting the fact that there are some terms that we need to use to engage and align people in organizations. For example specific tasks where a “technical” language is needed to help the teams accomplish the task.
  • Third, focusing on thinking of how to get the purpose work for desired results.

Purpose: Walk the talk!

If people don’t remember the long and fancy statements let’s drop them. We can replace them with an easy to understand -statement that everybody can remember, relate to and connect to their jobs. We can call that statement a purpose.

When followed up by transparent and fair objectives settings and systematic follow-up to measure the progress, we are putting legs to purpose. Rationally, objectives help the organizations articulate the expectations for execution and ensure commitment. Emotionally, clear objective setting through dialogue provide for the psychological safety needed for endurance and motivation for continuous learning and renewal. When explained well, purpose and related objectives setting link to both rational and emotional sides of people and support commitment, motivation and overall well-being.

Easy to remember and understandable purpose with transparent, implementable and measurable objectives can help organizations and people to navigate today’s changing business environment. In the complex world, we need simplicity and dialogue. By replacing mission and vision with purpose we can simplify the conceptual field of strategic management – and let go of the jargon. Who’s first?

PS. My personal experience of strongly engaging purpose statement is that of Nokia. I took it as my “personal professional purpose”. The purpose that still touches my emotions in a positive way. Every six months we had objective setting and evaluation sessions. After those I had my own evaluation: “Do I do anything good with these tasks I’m supposed to deliver?” “Connecting People” was the answer. Specifically in the context of people who were socially excluded and were not able to build a decent lives to themselves. Access to other people, education and services is about connecting people – and that was meaningful.