Tools: What’s the purpose?

Mission statement

The mission of XYZ company is… um… something?

It’s probably about making money or something like that, but we’re not sure…

The dreaded ‘mission statement’… It sits there, in a suitably-impressive looking frame, up on the wall somewhere in the entrance foyer of almost every company with any pretension to importance. It’s quite probable that a lot of effort went into framing those few words. But no-one really looks at it. No-one believes it. No-one believes in it. No-one cares.

Perhaps it’s interesting to wonder why this should be so… and why it might be important to do something about…

It’s unfortunate that most mission-statements read like just another item of corporate trash. They often read like a piece of low-grade marketing hype, a grandiose ‘position statement’ cobbled-together at the end of yet another expensive executive retreat. That’s certainly how most people view them – if they think of them at all. And in all too many cases they’re right, too.

But that can be a real problem, because that so-called ‘mission statement’ is actually the single most important description of itself that any company can make.


Because it’s the declaration of the company purpose, that’s why.

And it’s not a mission-statement: no-one sends the company on that mission. Calling it a mission-statement is a quick way of killing its value to the company, because it denies the central element of deliberate choice. It’s not a mission-statement, it’s a purpose-statement: it describes what the company collectively chooses as its purpose, its reason to exist.

The purpose-statement defines the reason why the company exists. It is – or should be – the foundation of everything that the company does. It really is as simple as that, and as significant as that.

With a purpose-statement that actually means something, everything anyone does in relation the company is done on purpose, and with a clear sense of purpose. Time after time, it’s been demonstrated that a well-written, honest and meaningful statement of company purpose does lead to clear, significant, measurable improvements in company morale, productivity, quality and profitability.

One reason for this is that a well-written purpose-statement makes so many things so much easier to do. From a requirements-analysis perspective, for example, it defines Requirement Number 1, the anchor for every other requirement in anything the company constructs, creates, plans or produces. And from a quality-analysis perspective – the perspective of ISO-9000 and related Standards – it becomes the cornerstone of the company’s entire quality-system, the ultimate basis of every policy, procedure and work-instruction. We’ve come across many people in business who regard ISO-9000 as nothing more than an annoying imposition, creating a pointless paper-trail needed only to keep customers quiet. And that attitude is understandable, given that most of the Standard documents – and, worse, most of the accreditation organisations – fail to emphasise the importance of the company’s purpose-statement. But with the purpose-statement as a reference-point for everything that the company does, ISO-9000 starts to make sense: because its purpose is to help your purpose. All those procedures and piles of paperwork suddenly gain a reason to exist – because it becomes clear that they exist to support the company’s purpose, and hence the people and the work that make up that strange collective entity called ‘the company’.

Those effects of a well-written purpose-statement we can identify, quantify, track and measure. Yet it’s at other, more subtle levels that it can have its greatest effect: though precisely because they are more subtle, they’re more difficult to describe or define. It’s best described as a ‘spiritual’ level: many people have trouble with that word, of course, but think of it as ‘a sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of self and of that which is greater than self’, and you’ll not only get a better idea of what the word means, but also why a purpose-statement becomes important to a company. If the people of a company can align with that statement of purpose, work takes on a meaning, a purpose, a value more than ‘just something I do to pay my way and pay for my play’: and they’re therefore more likely to be committed to their work – precisely because it does have meaning, purpose, value in and of itself. The same is true for the company’s clients: with a clear purpose-statement, they know what they’re being offered, and why, and hence are likely to be clearer about why they are involved with the company – leading to clearer communication, and improved profitability for all.

For one small piece of paper, hung up in its frame on the reception-area wall, that’s quite a big impact. And that’s why it’s worth doing, and doing well.

So what happens if a company doesn’t have a meaningful purpose-statement – or, for that matter, no purpose-statement at all?

Without a meaningful purpose-statement, nothing is done on purpose: it’s done on other purposes instead – whatever purpose happens to come into anyone’s mind at the time. Without that clear declaration of purpose represented by the purpose-statement, a company may literally have no meaningful purpose, and hence no real reason to exist; without a purpose that they can and do believe in, the company staff will lose interest and involvement in the work; and without a purpose they can trust, customers will soon lose interest too. And that’s exactly what happens, in far too many companies – and the management and the marketing department just sit there, and wonder why… A company that has lost its purpose, or never had one, will linger on in a purposeless, pointless way for quite a while, perhaps; but most people – especially those involved – would probably rather it didn’t…

Sad, really. Especially as it can be avoided with just a small amount of careful thought.

The hard part is that a purpose-statement can’t be just any old statement.

It isn’t a ‘position-statement’: a company’s position changes all the time, no matter what the management or the Marketing Department might want to believe.

It isn’t a ‘mission-statement’: no-one ‘sends’ the company on that mission.

It isn’t a ‘public-relations statement’: though in some specific senses it’s the only public-relations statement that has any meaning.

It’s a purpose-statement. A statement of the company’s purpose, in everything it does and aims to do.

It’s the cornerstone of the quality-system, the anchor for every requirement: so it has to describe what the company does, and intends to do – and how and why it intends to do it. (It’s long since been found that the purpose has to be described in terms of activities shared with others – usually the provision of goods or services of some kind. So no, “making money” isn’t a valid purpose here! That may be the intended end-result of the company’s work – or at least, many people within the company may believe that that’s the only purpose for being in business. But despite the long history of ‘asset stripping’, ‘economic rationalism‘ and other forms of corporate calumny, ‘making money’ isn’t how the company gets to be making its money in the first place: and it’s that that the purpose-statement has to describe.)

It has to be something the company chooses as its purpose – and not just the company’s management, but the company as a whole. The purpose-statement may well have to be finalised by management at some kind of ‘executive retreat’: but it has to represent the interests and concerns of every stakeholder – not just staff and shareholders, but also clients and the wider community. It’s not just about where the company fits in relation to its regular market: it’s also about where the company fits in relation to society as a whole.

It has to be something real, something true, something that everyone in the company, and everyone involved with the company, can commit to, can say ‘Yes’ to, with a sense of certainty, and perhaps even of pride.

It has to be something that everyone in the company does follow, in every action in relation to the company: a touchstone, a reference-point, a personal ‘quality-statement’ in relation to their work or their involvement with the company. It’s not just a statement: it’s a commitment to a way of life, a way of being in the world. Which is why management need to be particularly careful about purpose-statements: everyone in the company will follow their example – with disastrous effects to the company as a whole if management perceived the purpose of the purpose-statement as just another marketing ploy…

So the purpose-statement – that ‘mission-statement’ sitting up there on the wall in its fancy frame – is a lot more important than it looks. Perhaps it’s time to pay a bit more attention to it – and re-assess whether it actually does reflect the company’s true purpose?

Perhaps the most useful item of follow-on reading here would be the series of ISO-9000 Standards on quality-management. You’ve probably struggled through them once already: but this time read them with an understanding that the company’s purpose-statement is Requirement Number 1 for everything that the company does. If you do that, you’ll find that ISO-9000 – and its companion Standards, such as ISO-14000 and so on – makes a lot more sense: and is something you’ll actually want to see applied to your work.

Related pages