Purpose vs Mission – Only a few years ago, organisations were tying themselves in knots to create the perfect mission statement. This big-ticket item was emblazoned across corporate literature and meant to drive business direction. However, more recent changes in the marketplace led to organisations looking at their broader societal impact. Suddenly, organisations were becoming ‘mission led’ and aiming to achieve more holistic goals and simply profit maximisation.

Now, things have evolved further, and today’s focus is all on the purpose. But what is organisational ‘purpose’ exactly, and how does it differ? With definitions of these strategic concepts being fairly nebulous at best, it can be difficult to really pin down what we’re talking about – let alone take definition work forward for our own organisations!

Understanding purpose vs mission

Yesterday’s approach: The vision or mission statement

Typically profit and task-oriented, these written statements encapsulate the business direction of travel. They explain goals and desired accomplishments.

Today’s approach: Purpose

The idea of organisational purpose is more holistic. It goes down a level to describe the reason for an organisation’s existence entirely, and the journey it is taking.

In essence, then, we can look at purpose as a fundamental ‘reason for being here’.

An example in action:

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ mission is: “To help organizations and individuals create the value they’re looking for, by delivering quality in assurance, tax and advisory services.

But its purpose is: “To build trust in society and solve important problems.”

You can instantly understand the difference. The first statement might well tick investor boxes and guide management priorities. But the second instantly engages hearts and minds and makes the reader feel intuitively that they want to be part of this.

Why is purpose vs mission so important?

A clear and defined purpose is equally important for businesses, non-profits and government organisations.

Things we instantly notice about purpose:

  1. It engages hearts and minds: People want to work in organisations that are purpose-driven – especially the younger generations that are now entering the workforce and bringing fresh talent, ideas, skills and insights into what makes today’s customers tick.
  2. A purpose is broad and sweeping, describing what drives the people in an organisation; what makes them tick and what impact they want their efforts to have on the world.
  3. It describes a feeling and acts as a guiding compass. (unlike a mission, which tends to be about problem-solving.)
  4. The organisational purpose shouldn’t have an expiry date. HP leader, David Packard, said in the 1960s that a purpose should last for at least a century!
  5. You can never wholly achieve a purpose (unlike a mission, which can be achieved.)
  6. It provides clarity about the ‘why’ the organisation exists and gives employees a sense of fulfilment through contributing to a cause bigger than themselves.
  7. It provides a means to describe why you exist, see this great example for the Disney Corporation as described in the Harvard Business Review

What makes your organisation tick?

The idea of purpose can initially seem a little ‘fluffy’ and touchy-feely; perhaps something that the marketing team might come up with for a campaign! But there is a far stronger and undeniable financial link. Why? Because all stakeholders in a modern organisation want to know why it exists. Is it there to help society, or simply to make money? What are its values? Stakeholders consider these fundamentals to be more important than yesterday’s tired mission statements that simply described how a company would turn a profit or keep shareholders happy.

A recent study of 500,000 US company workers [1] found that:

  • High purpose organisations were characterised by high worker camaraderie and/or high clarity from management
  • Organisations that had both business purpose and clarity invariably had a better stock market performance
  • Where mid-level employees, in particular, felt engaged with their organisation’s purpose and were clear on how their performance would support this path, there was a clear correlation with financial results.

Consider too that an organisation with a strong purpose is likely to have a strong and meaningful brand. These are the organisations that great talent wants to work for. These are the organisations that suppliers want to partner with. And, of course, they are the brands that customers want to buy from.

Recognising the deal breaker

Organisations need a purpose and a vision. Some business thinkers believe that it isn’t essential to have a defined vision for an organisation. However, evidence points to the contrary.

At Intrafocus, we have years of experience in strategic consultancy and our expert teams see this in action time and time again. We can see the need to question purpose vs mission, however, organisations with a defined vision and purpose travel with intent towards their goal. They know what they are doing and hire the best people. They have a great culture. Why? Because they are all completely clear and focused on why they are there and what they are working towards. The vision and purpose are real and living things that drive every effort and stimulate excitement, motivation and productivity. After all, if you don’t know why you are there and for what purpose, how can you truly deliver?

Putting theory into practice

  1. Start with your purpose in order to set your direction.
  2. Once you have defined this, you can then work out the ‘how’ and ‘whats’ of achieving it, which will create your mission. The purpose will then provide your foundation and guiding direction, and your mission statement will help you to pinpoint the destination and ideal achievements.
  3. Once these are in place, you will have the foundation upon which to develop your vision, objectives, targets and goals as you move into planning.

Feeling daunted about where to start? Rather than feel overwhelmed, just commit to starting the process and take it step by step. Our team of strategy consultants at Intrafocus can help you too. We work with organisations of all sizes and across all industries to help them define their purpose and to take their strategy forward.

Whatever stage you are at in your strategic journey, we can help you to unlock maximum value from it. Contact our team for a no-obligation chat about your organisation and your needs and we will be delighted to help.

Further resources

To find out more about this topic, take a look at Step 1 of the Intrafocus Strategic Planning Guide: Strategic Planning – Vision and Purpose.