A sense of mission can confer competitive edge

No company can be taken seriously without a well articulated mission, fuelled by a vision - according to many management experts…

No company can be taken seriously without a well articulated mission, fuelled by a vision - according to many management experts, and of course, consultants who help companies devise their missions.

Why are missions deemed to be so important? And yet, why is there so much scepticism about them?

In the 1970s, the guru Peter Drucker strongly advocated a mission as a foundation for the organisation in defining its fundamental purposes and principles. Supposedly, when everyone in the organisation knows its mission, their behaviour will be guided by it, as they work together toward achieving common purposes, adhering to a shared set of values. Without a mission in mind, people are unsure about where they are headed, and may work at cross purposes. This is the proverbial acid test of a mission.

When organisation members are asked what they do at work, do they respond that they are laying blocks, or do they affirm that they are building a cathedral?

A mission's value is enhanced when it is future oriented. In that sense it should be related to an inspiring vision - a vivid mental "picture" of what the company wants to look like in the future, say 5 to 10 years' time. Often, future visions are built incrementally, starting from the present, but this reference point set limits on the imagination. An alternative route to a vision is to start by imagining a future desirable state, ignoring the constraints of the existing situation.

An unconstrained vision is analogous to the notion of "strategic intent," a phrase first coined by strategists, Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad. Strategic intent is characterised by companies with ambitions that are out of all proportion to their current resources and capabilities, taking the form of an obsession throughout the organisation, with winning global leadership.

The example par excellence is that of Komatsu, a domestic Japanese earth-moving equipment company, whose rallying cry in the 1960s, was "Encircle Caterpillar", then the global industry leader and three times the size of Komatsu. Even if Komatsu never quite beat Caterpillar, its phenomenal growth over a 20-year period into a global player, with a broad product line spanning industrial robots and semiconductors, was spurred by the constant and compelling image of overtaking the US giant.

Armed with an invigorating vision of what the future can be, the company is in a position to define its mission, ie., what it should be doing as it works its way toward realisation of the vision. Thus, the mission delineates what activities the company should undertake and how its members should behave.

The content of the mission can encompass the following themes: target customers and markets, principal products and services, geographic domain, core technologies, economic performance, consideration for employees, company philosophy, self-concept and concern for public image and reputation.

If the mission is to be successful in propelling the company towards its vision, certain conditions have to be fulfilled. According to research conducted at Ashridge Management College, this entails instilling a "sense of mission" throughout the organisation.

At Ashridge, they found that companies with a sense of mission enshrine a strong commitment to their values and purposes. People feel they are working for an enterprise that is superior to its peers, in terms of the principles on which it operates, as well as in its business and commercial attributes.

In fact, in the Ashridge model, a mission grounded in the day-to-day realities of corporate life should include four essential elements. In addition to values, there have to be purpose, strategy, and behaviour standards.

Purpose tells us what a company is there for, why it exists at all. For example, Microsoft aims "to empower people through great software" any time, any place, and on any device." The Body Shop declares that it dedicates its business to the pursuit of social and environmental change. Dublin Corporation intends to "foster a vibrant, attractive, safe and environmentally sustainable capital city."

Where does profit come into the purpose picture? These days, very few companies would admit to existing merely as a money machine for shareholders. Indeed, would such a purpose inspire a sense of mission? Up to the late 1990s, when Hanson Trust was a conglomerate, it was single-minded in its pursuit of shareholder returns, to the exclusion of all other considerations. Interestingly, as the company has narrowed its business definition into a building materials company, it has broadened its purpose. Now, in addition to shareholders, Hanson equally considers a number of other stakeholders - customers, the environment and communities in which the company operates.

The element of strategy in the Ashridge mission model refers to the business logic of the company, the way it will attain commercial success. This will define the business that the company is in, the desired positioning of the company in its industry, and the distinctive competences that will give it some kind of competitive advantage.

Behaviour standards are the mission element that convert purpose and strategy to action. They offer guidance on how people should do business on an everyday basis. For instance, the Body Shop converts its concern for the environment into the provision of recyclable bags, and offering products at a discount for refills. Wal-Mart demonstrates its emphasis on the customer by having "greeters" at the door to assist buyers.

Thus, companies with a sense of mission have a mutually reinforcing set of the four elements of individual and organisational values, purpose, strategy and behaviour standards. When all are aligned, there is confidence, trust, loyalty and a genuine commitment to the enterprise by all its members.

The mission truly guides what people do and the decisions they make keep the four elements in harmony. In that respect, a sense of mission is an individual emotional phenomenon. This fact implies that no organisation can hope to inculcate 100 per cent of its employees with a sense of mission, although careful recruitment can help.

How does a company actually create a sense of mission among its people? Firstly, it is a long term and ongoing project. Secondly, it will not be decided on intellectual criteria and thirdly, it cannot be imposed by dictat. Rather, it is likely to emerge from the life of the organisation, the values and ambitions people bring in with them, and the way they interact and work together.

Another implication of the Ashridge model is that change in one element could imply change in the others. For example, when Hanson became a heavy building materials company, it invoked a new behaviour standard to act responsibly in all the communities in which it operates, keeping with its new purpose to satisfy growing demands to build a quality environment. It is no easy task to ensure congruence among all four elements, but managers can learn a lot about their enterprises by examining the degree of consistency among the elements, and the reasons for any inconsistencies.

One conclusion is certain. When the elements are misaligned, the company has no coherent mission. When people are dubious about the need for corporate visions and missions, they are probably referring to companies that just can't get it together. Maybe that is why Lou Gerstner said that the last thing IBM needed was a vision when he took over the leadership of the company at a time when it was in trouble.

Perhaps he instinctively realised that a vision on its own is counterproductive unless it is broadly shared among the members of an organisation, and enacted through a sense of mission.

Dr Eleanor O'Higgins is a lecturer in strategic management and business ethics at UCD Graduate Business School