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When does “purpose” lack the clarity to guide leadership?

Probably where there are no or too many paradoxes


Crafting a compelling purpose or mission statement is crucial for any company as it serves as a guiding light for its values, goals, and strategies. One reason for having a clear “Purpose” or “Mission” statement is to provide a narrative that articulates the alignment between the agreed principles and the cause.  

However, overly firm and rigid purposes, such as those that segment and position different religious or political movements, show that such alignment can limit the imagination of those who are aligned and removes choices and options before they are even considered. Equally, suppose the purpose or mission statement is too sloppy and generic. In that case, it will not deliver the clarity and principles needed to navigate and resolve difficult and thorny problems.  

Because of these limitations, a purpose or mission statement should allow space for ambiguity, interpretation, and paradoxes. If too hard and firm, while there is clarity, there is also no space for adaptation, imagination, and invention. Experience and time quickly erode the idea of timelessness as dated. If it is too weak, there is a lack of clarity, principles, and boundaries. 

I find this explanation/ expansion about what makes a high-quality purpose or mission statement both at odds with best practices and in alignment with teaching about purpose and mission statements, depending on the souce.

The next few paragraphs focus on how to write and craft the perfect purpose or mission statement for a company based on insights from some leading business schools. 

London School of Economics (LSE), a well-defined mission statement should articulate the company's purpose, its reason for existence, and the value it aims to create for its stakeholders. It should be concise, inspiring, and memorable, capturing the essence of the organisation's identity and aspirations.

MIT Sloan School of Management emphasises that a mission statement should be customer-centric, focusing on the needs and desires of the target market. It should clearly communicate how the company intends to meet those needs and differentiate itself from competitors. Additionally, the statement should be broad enough to accommodate future growth and innovation while remaining specific enough to provide direction and clarity.

Harvard Business School suggests a mission statement should align with the company's core competencies and competitive advantages. It should highlight the unique value proposition that sets the organisation apart and resonates with both internal and external stakeholders. Involving employees, customers, and other key stakeholders in the process of developing the mission statement can foster a sense of ownership and commitment to the company's purpose.

The International Institute for Management Development (IMD) advises that a mission statement should be aspirational, reflecting the company's long-term vision and ambitions. It should inspire and motivate employees, fostering a sense of pride and commitment to the organisation's goals. At the same time, the statement should be grounded in reality, reflecting the company's current capabilities and resources while providing a roadmap for future growth and success.

London Business School (LBS) emphasises that a company's mission statement should reflect its fundamental reason for being and the value it intends to deliver to society. According to LBS, a strong mission statement articulates the organisation's core purpose in a way that transcends making profits and resonates with a broader set of stakeholders, including employees, customers, and the community.

INSEAD: This renowned international business school emphasizes the importance of aligning the mission statement with the company's core competencies and competitive advantages while also considering global perspectives and cultural nuances.

Stanford Graduate School of Business stresses the need for mission statements that are authentic and consistent with the organisation's actions and behaviours, fostering trust and credibility among stakeholders.

Regardless of the specific approach, all leading business schools agree that a well-crafted mission statement is a powerful tool for communicating a company's purpose, values, and strategic direction. It serves as a unifying force, rallying stakeholders around a common cause and guiding decision-making processes at all levels of the organisation. The best practices appear to recommend that a purpose/ mission statement be aspirational yet achievable, challenging the organisation to strive for excellence while remaining grounded in reality. The statement should be clear, concise, and memorable, capturing the essence of the company's identity and values in a way that inspires and motivates those associated with the organisation.

HOWEVER 

For me, I am left to dwell on the fact that a significant part of the issue rests when we frame the business purpose, mission or objectives in a single dimension to make is clear and easy to understand and communicate. When we expand what we are optimising for away from shareholder primacy and finance, we find we have to accept that “tunnel vision” that seems clear and drives single outcome incentives, and narrow kpi’s become the very reason we cannot unpick the tensions we feel and conflicts we face. Clarity of purpose and a precise mission statement means we have lost the ability to have ambiguity, yet we need it.

Clarity of purpose and a precise mission statement means we have lost the ability to have ambiguity, yet we need it.

As creating and crafting a purpose and mission statement remain an art and not a science, perhaps a better test of a good purpose or mission statement is its ability to present recognisable, knowable and identifiable paradoxes, which are something to be respected and celebrated. 

The question we should ask is: How many paradoxes can I see in our purpose and mission statements? Then, as a leadership team, we should debate whether there are too few or too many.


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