Mission, Vision, Values: Catalysts for Action

Quick.  Without looking at the poster on the wall or the wallet card you are probably carrying, what’s the mission and vision of your organization or company? Hopefully, you aren’t being observed right now with your mouth wide open muttering … “well, uh, we’re in the business of uh … “

You may not immediately think about the fundamental business you’re in when sitting around a table stuffing envelopes for a mailing or working on a budget.  But remaining connected to a passionate purpose is an important motivators for individuals.

In 2002, the American Society of Association Executives Foundation identified Meaning Matters as one of the seven emerging issues affecting associations.  Ten years later, I believe meaning is just as important.  According to the ASAE publication, individuals seek/will seek organizations that offer: (1) meaningful purpose, (2) meaningful relationships, (3) meaningful contributions, and (4) meaningful stories.  Do your efforts meet the litmus test for these four areas?

Are you passionate about the mission/purpose of your organization and the work you do?  Do your interactions with colleagues reflect a spirit of true community as opposed to interactions typified by cliché-level conversation? Do your meetings and conferences intentionally facilitate connections between like-minded individuals as opposed to meandering networking opportunities in a crowded ballroom? Do you leverage individuals’ personal passions and talents for meaningful volunteer or work opportunities with demonstrated impact so individuals can feel a true sense of accomplishment?  Can you articulate the vision and values of your organization and its efforts through inclusive stories in which diverse individuals can “see themselves” as meaningful contributors?

Answering these questions with a resounding yes is of critical importance. Mission, vision, and values bind individuals and any affiliates together while still allowing ample interpretation and creativity in how they are brought to life in individual efforts.  The importance of this approach is evidenced in Daniel Pink's recent book, Drive, which examines how autonomy, mastery, and purpose unlock individuals' intrinsic motivation.  Too often though, these three critical components have been wordsmithed until they have lost their true value: to be a catalyst for individual and collective action.  Success is not creating the mission or vision statement; success is creating the mission or vision statement that best serves your stakeholders, that engages the passions and energies of individuals, and that produces inspired results.  People need to both understand their meaning, as well as find them meaningful.  A well-written statement that ignites no “fire in the belly” of its target audiences is not a meaningful story. 

For their seminal work, Built to Last, authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras researched those visionary companies who had consistently been industry leaders for many decades.  They sought to learn what characteristics of these organizations allowed them to remain at the top despite dramatically changing conditions and competitive pressures.  The essence of their findings is as follows:  These visionary companies demonstrated cult-like vigilance around operationalizing their core values and purpose while exercising tremendous flexibility and willingness to change virtually everything else; again, ideological constraint is coupled with operational autonomy.  This seeming paradox allowed them to preserve passion for their purpose as the anchor for their efforts while constantly innovating and developing new services and efforts.  Doing so frequently required major changes in organizational structure, goals, and operating procedures.

This model holds valuable lessons.  A cult-like vigilance for an organization’s purpose should be the permanent anchor for all efforts at the individual, department, or collective level.  How that is accomplished—the structure and strategies used—should be flexible and ever-improving, not shackled by rigid plans and inflexible procedures.  Regretfully, the ways in which core values and purpose are realized over time becomes seen as the ends in and of themselves as opposed to a means to a greater end.  Structure and strategy are merely tools to accomplish mission and vision, not things to be preserved at all costs. So start spending a bit more time talking about what you do and why it is important.  Figuring out the best ways to do it will more naturally evolve once individuals have been passionately reconnected to your organization’s purpose.

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