On Visioning

Why Purpose and Ethos Lead to a Stronger Vision

“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world.” ~Malcolm Gladwell

visioningIn his 2009 TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” Simon Sinek famously asserted “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” This is true for customers of a product or service, but is equally true for an organization’s employees. The consulting firm Imperative published a study in 2016 that revealed that the most important factor in employee job satisfaction is having a sense of purpose. Thus, it is essential for businesses to have a vision and a mission that is effective internally and externally.

Many business schools and online guides advise approaching the vision or mission statement by looking into the future, dreaming big, and expressing ideas with emotion but not too much specificity. (Some organizations have both a vision and a mission statement, the former typically looking more inward and the latter looking outward.) Unfortunately, this has lead to a lot of vague and meaningless mission statements, i.e. “It is our mission to enthusiastically leverage efficiency while generating value for our customers.” That doesn’t inspire employees or customers because it doesn’t really say anything. On the flip side, getting too specific is also counterproductive: “We manufacture the best widgets in the industry at the lowest cost to consumers.” We know exactly what you do, but we don’t really know why you do it.

In this article I’ll analyze some vision and mission statements, and then look at why purpose and ethos are more important and powerful than vision or mission.

Let’s start by looking at some real-world examples for comparison:

Apple’s mission statement under Steve Jobs:

To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.

This statement isn’t about a particular product or even computers or operating systems. It’s about why they do what they do. Apple is a technology company, but this broad statement gives their design not only a functional and aesthetic goal but also an ethos, thereby creating a community of shared values. That’s why Apple customers are so loyal.

The downside to this statement is that it’s too broad and overly grandiose. Can a computer, smart phone or operating system really “advance humankind”? Maybe. But the hyperbole runs the risk of making it ring false with customers and employees.

Apple’s mission statement now:

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.

This isn’t really a mission statement, it’s just a list of products, some of which are obsolete. It’s also backwards-looking. You shouldn’t have to update your mission statement just because you release a new product or phase out an old one. The mission statement should have a vision that operates at a much higher level than any particular product. If Apple is only a list of products, even if those products are well designed and of good quality, then it lacks an ethos, and it lacks a vision of why they do what they do.

Patagonia:

Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Patagonia’s mission statement concisely expresses both the values that have made their business successful as well as the values that drive them to help improve the world. They make and sell products by and for people who love the outdoors. As such, engaging in philanthropic efforts to help the environment is exactly aligned with their ethos of why they make the products they make.

IDEO:

We believe…

  • Everyone is creative. IDEO builds learning platforms and tools to unlock creativity.
  • Creative organizations are more agile. IDEO helps organizations innovate by empowering the people who drive them.
  • Complex problems are solved collaboratively. IDEO brings together networks to act on systemic challenges in education, sustainable food, mobility, aging and death.
  • Innovation in public life starts with people. IDEO creates human centered products, services, spaces, and organizations that empower communities, cities and even countries.
  • Technology moves fast, human needs change slowly. IDEO connects emerging technology to everyday needs and aspirations in fields such as biodesign, life science, health, and data.
  • Venturing is R&D. IDEO helps large organizations move quickly and small companies scale by putting people’s needs at the center.

This is very long winded, but IDEO is also a company that does a lot of things and so they may be justified in going into more detail. Really what this boils down to is that IDEO has six points in its design philosophy. In other words, they have a strong ethos and a strong culture. And it’s that ethos and culture that enabled them to essentially invent design thinking. Perhaps a more concise way to encapsulate this would be:

“At IDEO we believe that innovative solutions for technology, business and public life require human-centered collaborative thinking.”

It doesn’t capture everything, but it expresses enough of the ethos to be a guiding principle and communicate to the outside world why they do what they do.

Purpose rather than a mission

A pattern that emerges is that mission/vision statements are empty if they don’t also have purpose. The branding agency Siegel+Gale published a brilliant manifesto on this titled “It’s time to bury the mission and vision.” In it, David Srere rejects the empty and generic mission statements that many companies feel compelled to publish and instead focuses on their purpose:

“Purpose is a definitive statement of the difference an organization seeks to make in the world. It is a clear, credible, compelling response to a fundamental question: “Why do we do what we do?”” -David Srere, co-president, CEO and chief strategy officer @ Siegel+Gale

The key aspects of a purpose statement is that it articulates the what and why of a company in a way that is both high level and specific. Consider Google’s mission statement:

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

In one concise sentence Google tells us that they are not just a search engine or a cloud services company and they’re not just another tech product company. Their purpose is the “organize the world’s information” meaning they’re a big data company, “and make it universally accessible and useful” meaning they’re a UX-centric company. That provides a lens through which to assess every product or service they create, and tells us why they do everything they do.

Ethos

To find your organization’s purpose, start with some simple sentences and keywords. What is your organization’s ethos? What is the characteristic spirit of your organization’s culture that grows from your shared values? And as you explore your organization’s ethos, keep working towards the why. Why do you do what you do? Look inside to find what drives you, and look outside to see where you want to go.

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