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Mission Statements Are Outdated ... Why You Should Focus on Purpose Instead

Mission vs. Purpose … what gives?

You may have heard the buzz about this over the last couple of years. Used to be, everyone had a big, bold, important mission statement that was designed to drive business decisions. Eventually, it became trendy to be a “mission-driven” organization – one who’s mission was about accomplishing for the greater good rather than just padding the owner’s or shareholders’ pocket-books.

Then, suddenly, out of the blue, everyone started talking about “purpose-driven” organizations as the new gold standard in terms of impact. Huh?

 

So, what’s the difference?

Why does it matter? And how might YOU and YOUR organization benefit from making a shift from focusing on mission to putting purpose first?

To begin to answer these questions, I first looked up both terms in the dictionary. Of course, they are very close in definition …

Merriam-Webster defines “mission” in this context as: “a specific task with which a person or a group is charged.” A specific task seems pretty clear.

Or, “a pre-established and often self-imposed objective or purpose.” Ok, now it’s getting a little confusing again with the word purpose inside the definition of mission.

So, then I looked up “purpose” in the same dictionary, and didn’t find much to help untangle this mess. Synonyms including “intention,” “resolution” and “determination” just didn’t resonate. (And if you want to know how I really feel about resolutions, you can read here.)

Google’s definition for purpose was slightly better: “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.” Hmmm … let’s find some backup for that, shall we?

According to Shannon Schuyler, chief purpose officer (yeah, that’s her actual title!) at PricewaterhouseCoopers: “Your mission statement is more about what you want to accomplish, and the goals you want to get to, whereas your purpose statement is your reason for existence and more about the journey.”

The example she gave was that PwC’s mission is, “To help organizations and individuals create the value they’re looking for, by delivering quality in assurance, tax and advisory services.

PwC’s purpose is: “To build trust in society and solve important problems.”

In the past, I’ve had clients come to me with something broad like the latter statement and try to pass it off as their mission, and I’ve told them to go get more specific. Now, ironically, with the rise in popularity of the purpose statement, we’re going backward and telling people to go with more sweeping broad statements about what drives them, and what their ultimate effect will be on the world.

I’ve always thought of a mission as a specific problem you, or your practice, or your organization are setting out to solve in the world. Purpose is more about a feeling. And a purpose statement is a compass that drives you in action toward that feeling.

That might be getting a little mushy for you, so here’s yet another layer to the onion … In a 1960 speech by David Packard to HP’s training group, he explains:

“PURPOSE (WHICH SHOULD LAST AT LEAST 100 YEARS) SHOULD NOT BE CONFUSED WITH SPECIFIC GOALS OR BUSINESS STRATEGIES (WHICH SHOULD CHANGE MANY TIMES IN 100 YEARS). WHEREAS YOU MIGHT ACHIEVE A GOAL OR COMPLETE A STRATEGY, YOU CANNOT FULFILL A PURPOSE; IT’S LIKE A GUIDING STAR ON THE HORIZON—FOREVER PURSUED BUT NEVER REACHED. YET ALTHOUGH PURPOSE ITSELF DOES NOT CHANGE, IT DOES INSPIRE CHANGE. THE VERY FACT THAT PURPOSE CAN NEVER BE FULLY REALIZED MEANS THAT AN ORGANIZATION CAN NEVER STOP STIMULATING CHANGE AND PROGRESS.”
— David Packard

 

Brilliant! So, you see, this idea of being purpose-driven is not so new after all! But more importantly, the key idea there is that a mission can be fulfilled, purpose cannot. Clarity at last!

 

Ok, so it’s not really true that missions are outdated.

It’s just that people are starting to realize that without clarity of purpose, mission doesn’t mean that much. What’s more, if a mission is a goal that is attainable, once you attain it (and that's all you have), then what?? True some organizations, especially non-profits, are built around this model. And once the mission is attained, it’s time to disband.

But I’m guessing you want your business or practice or organization to have a lasting purpose, and if you can nail down what that is, and why it means so much to you, even if you attain your first mission, you’ll still have something to strive for.

So here’s the deal: We are all looking for a sense of fulfillment in our lives. Fulfillment comes in large part from contributing to something larger than ourselves, in having a reason to do what we do beyond our need to make money or provide for our loved ones. Fulfillment, in its boiled down essence, is directly related to having a clear sense of purpose.

Now, I can’t finish this article without giving a little shout-out to the humble vision statement. A vision statement is about the destination – about how you would like to be seen as an individual or organization in the future. It’s about what you will achieve, about results, about the measurable impact you will have, and it keeps you on course to fulfill your purpose. However, not having a defined vision for your organization isn’t a deal-breaker, so I’m putting it on the shelf for now.

Let’s get back to why I am advocating spending time on a purpose statement rather than a mission statement. Well, if you have time to sweat both, go for it! But if you only have enough time to focus on one, start with purpose! Defining a purpose (why) will set you in the right direction … figuring out the what and how (mission) comes second.

Simon Sinek Quote in text.png

Your defined purpose serves as your North Star. When you are clear on why you're in the business you're in, you have a solid foundation from which to build, and that statement can drive every decision and every action every day. All the while, you’ll know that everything you are doing is moving you closer to your ultimate goals!

And once that foundation is set, mission, vision, objectives, goals, and targets can fall into place naturally through your planning process.

I received some advice recently that I really had to take to heart, and that was not to worry about how to get there. When you set really big intentions about the impact you want to have in the world, it can feel kind of scary. A lot of times, we’ve never done anything so big before, so we have a hard time committing because we don’t understand the how yet. The key is to commit and then start doing the work that needs to get done to get from A to B. You don’t need a fleshed out plan all the way to Z yet! This is how purpose keeps us on track. You set that intention and then just keep aiming in that direction and taking action.

I created a set of exercises recently to guide people in the creation of their perfect purpose statement, and when I tested the process, here’s the purpose statement that I created for my business, HERE+NOW:

My purpose is to serve humanity by helping people navigate change in a positive way and end up happier, healthier and more successful.

— Megan Arneson, HERE+NOW

 

Notice, it’s not measurable, it’s not speaking specifically about my target market, and it’s vague in terms of the how (and all of those things feel super weird 'cause I really like specific and measurable!. But, it’s about the feeling. And when I read it, I feel inspired and it makes me want to get back to work!!

Next step: mapping out my planning process (putting the measurable metrics in there) and sharing that process for creating the "how" as well.

So, now I’d love to hear from you … what’s your purpose statement?

Need help devising the perfect purpose statement or revamping your old one? Click here to get access to the FREE 2018 5-day Perfect Purpose Planner e-course and printable workbook. I’ve designed it for anyone who’s ready to uncover your perfect purpose statement, or refine the one you’ve already drafted.

The simple exercises take about 30 minutes to complete over a 5-day period and you’ll have a handy printable .pdf workbook to guide you through the process.