Organizations can articulate purpose on many levels, from the value of individual tasks and roles, to the significance of entire departments, to the overarching purpose of the organization as a whole. When we understand the purpose of something, we can choose to engage with it more deeply and freely or disengage with clarity about why we don’t want to participate.
One way to understand purpose is to think about it as the why behind our actions. Many of us who have had young children in our lives know that, at about three years old, they start to ask “why?” incessantly. They want to know why we need to eat at particular times, why they have to wear pants outside the house, and why dogs and cats can be pets inside our homes, but not pigs or cows. Although we may not do it as incessantly as children (at least not out loud), we often still ask “why?” We are propelled to understand why we need to do things, why we should engage with them, and why they matter.
Before considering its divisions, departments, or individual job descriptions, every organization must first define its overarching purpose and articulate it as a clear and succinct mission statement. This mission statement will drive the work of the organization, and the purpose of every individual and team action must relate to it in some way. The key to naming purpose is to do it in a meaningful way.
Unfortunately, despite hours of hard work, some mission statements end up being uninspiring or failing to clearly describe purpose. We’ve seen many mission statements that read something like this: “As a partner to our clients, we aim to be number one in their minds when they think of our services.” Or, “We aspire to maximize sales through innovative and quality products.” The problem with these statements, of course, is that they are generic, lack meaning to the reader, and fail to inspire the day-to-day work of their organizations.
Other mission statements we’ve come across describe an organization’s products, services, or goals, but say nothing about its purpose. For example, “Our mission is to be the number one auto-parts dealer in our region.” This type of statement may be helpful for potential clients who want to understand what the company does, but it will not set that company apart from its competitors, and it is not likely to inspire staff or customers.
An effective mission statement will both explain why your organization exists and inspire and energize your leaders, employees, and clients. As Simon Sinek aptly states in his TED talk, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” As you articulate purpose within your organization, remember that your audience, whether it’s your employees, clients, or customers, should be able to understand the why behind your organization’s actions.