Organisational change – On purpose… (3 of 5)07 June 2022
Prince Charles as a student at Trinity College, Cambridge
Part three of a series of thought pieces by Ben Story, COO of SDCL
“My great problem in life is that I do not really know what my role in life is.”
The Prince of Wales once aired his existential angst in a speech at Cambridge University in the 1970s. Like the UK’s future king, organisations benefit from having a clear purpose.
If change across an organisation is not directed and aligned, then individual change projects are less likely to reinforce each other; worse, they may needlessly duplicate or conflict with each other. This results in a “scattergun” approach to change. You can seek to mandate and control change from the centre – and for some critical activities this may be appropriate – but this is likely to lead to a managerial burden, “one-size-fits-all” dogma, and lower innovation.
A purpose framework consists of an organisation’s purpose, vision, mission and values. It provides the corporate code required to ensure that change projects distributed throughout an organisation are automatically directed and aligned. As a result, change projects can generate greater core momentum.(1)
Like any concept that seeks to rationalise a complex and dynamic system, purpose frameworks are ambiguous and there are various definitions and applications of their components. I use the following categorisations for guidance:
|Purpose||Why the organisation exists||Governance||Foundational||Technology cycles|
|Vision||How the organisation intends to realise its purpose||Strategy||Long-term
(Strategic plan /strategic goals)
|Mission||What the organisation does to achieve its vision||Operations||Medium-term
(Budget/operational & financial targets)
|Values||How the organisation behaves||People||Everyday||Decision cycles|
Purpose states why an organisation exists. As the Enacting Purpose Initiative puts it, an organisation’s purpose is “the most important organising principle within the organisation, informing and guiding strategic decisions and activities”. Tesla’s purpose to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” clearly informs and guides; whereas WeWork’s erstwhile purpose to “elevate the world’s consciousness” was impossible to apply as an organising principle.
When developing purpose frameworks, I have often struggled with the intellectual exercise of disentangling vision and mission. As Bain & Company acknowledges in its Management Tools, “Elements of Mission and Vision Statements are often combined”.(3) I believe it is instructive to investigate underlying organisational activities. In my experience, the strategy drumbeat and the operations drumbeat in most organisations are powerful and distinct. Vision tends towards the strategy drumbeat. It sets the desired future state for the organisation, and success is articulated by strategic goals. Mission tends towards the operations drumbeat. It defines the business, and performance is measured by operational and financial targets. The platform we are using, LinkedIn, provides a good example: LinkedIn’s vision is to “Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce” and “The mission of LinkedIn is simple: connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful”.(4)
At its core, an organisation’s strategy seeks to make sense of vision and mission, and optimise outcomes so that an organisation thrives through time. For me, therefore, strategy formulation is the central, determining activity. The purpose framework can be viewed as a crucial document of record for strategy at a point in time. Looked at this way, articulating the vision and mission in a purpose framework involves retrieving distinct, clear and simple statements from an organisation’s strategy (and not the other way round).
Values describe how an organisation behaves. They should inform and guide the day-to-day decisions taken by everybody in an organisation. Many values are common to all organisations and value statements can appear platitudinous and trite. A good starting point is to identify any common values that are especially relevant to an organisation, such as the Hippocratic Oath for medicine, integrity for a bank, or safety for an airline. In addition to these, list the key values that specifically relate to an organisation’s strategy. A good example of a really challenging value statement is published by Google.(5) (The original Google value of “Don’t Be Evil” proved hard to apply.)
Organisational values are often described as “timeless”, but they exist in global social and political systems whose values – and their underlying beliefs – are constantly evolving. Decisions deemed acceptable one day may appear wrongheaded the next. Not only should an organisation’s values change when needed – Uber’s “Always be hustling” was always trouble-bound! – but an organisation should progress and learn with every decision. Key value decisions can make or break organisations.
(1) In my earlier piece “On change…” I defined “core momentum” as a continuous strategic change capability which ensures that an organisation is constantly exploring, learning and growing.
(3) See Management Tools: Vision and Mission Statements by Bain & Company.
(4) See About LinkedIn.
(5) See Our approach to search by Google.