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I was working with a client who, like many organisations, was getting tangled up in definitions of purpose and mission.   What it revelaed was the importance of ‘Meaning’ at work, and meaningful work, today.

This article untangles purpose and mission, but puts a greater emphasis on Meaning and meaningful work.

This client knew what they were about, but were having some difficulty articulating it.  They were looking for statements that described what they were about and their purpose and contribution as an organisation.

I realised that the answer lay in looking at such purpose or mission statements in a quite different way to the normal approach.

First, untangling the problem with purpose & mission statements

To help then out I started asking them questions based upon a recent book by AJ Laffrey, “Playing to Win” which defined strategy as having five components, the first two of which were “What is winning?” and “Where to play?”.  (In fact he is using a common model that goes back to Drucker, and forward to models of business and many views of strategy.)

The team found the latter, “where to play”, easy to define.  In fact it helped them immensely to have such clear boundaries between where they would play and where they would not.

The harder problem was describing what it would be like to “Win”.  I can understand why that might not be easy.  For many organisations this is relative to a competition or market.  For some public sector and charitable organisations “What is winning” is difficult because the problems they are  solving in society, are so large, that winning was more of a situation of mitigating the losses.  However, I have worked with some well know organisations who have made a major difference to society so I was not troubled by this (for instance the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund had a major impact on the use of land-mines and cluster munitions around the world).

However, the more we talked about it, the more I realised that I was asking them the wrong question, (or rather they were tackling the wrong question).  Framing the topic around “Purpose” was not helping.  The clue was in the front line staff doing the things they knew to be right, whilst the “centre” of the organisation struggled more with the definitions.

The different was having a meaning, today!

The problem was in two parts.  The first was realising that the issue was not one of ‘purpose’, nor of ‘winning’.

The problem was one of meaning.  It was one of knowing that we are doing the right things, today, now.   It was about having impact with the people and children, it helped, that day.

The critical issue is the tense used in each sentence:

  • In the purpose sentence the tense is about the future “We will have won when….” (Future perfect tense) .
  • In teh meaning sentence, tense is about now, “What does it feel like when we are winning (Continuous present tense).

It might seem unusual to emphasise the tense of each sentence but it is fundamental to the issue.   It is the difference between “Having a purpose” that you are aiming at and what you are doing today “having meaning, today”.

The difference between aiming for a far off objective and knowing that what you are doing is contributing a little to make a little difference somewhere important.

Meaning and purpose

The more I listened to their conversations the more I realised it was about BOTH a) “Having meaning today” AND  b) “Having a longer term purpose or mission”  the easier this became to explain.

The staff on the front line did have meaning and purpose today.  They were making a difference to the lives of the people they worked with: a difference that stuck and made a lasting change.  What became clear to me was that much of the role of the organisation was to help front line staff have a meaning to what they did (alongside having a larger purpose).  More importantly the role of the organisation was to support those people to deliver that meaningful work to the people they met, here and now and every day.

when I realised this important difference I also realised it is sad that we discuss “Purpose” so much, but spend so little time on “Meaning”.  I wonder if this is where so much of management and leadership goes wrong?

So why was there a problem with purpose?

The second part of the problem was about timing – or rather what things could change over time, and what would not.

So what stopped us defining “purpose” in the  same way as they defined “Meaningful”?

Again, the more I listened to them, the more I realised that they realised that how they reached their customers today was not necessarily going to be how they helped their customers and “went to market” in the future.  Winning today, knowing we are winning, was relatively easy to understand.   Their routes to market, how they would find their customers, how that work would be funded, and where they helped their customers, would all change.  Of course this is an issue for many organisations and I have seen it several times.   What we want to achieve stays teh same, but how we achieve it differs.

The fundamentals of “why” they helped their customers would also be persistent.  The  “Why we believe this is the right way to help our customers” was very consistent and persistent.

Defining purpose as what they do, how who they help and why.

This is  where the problem with the definition of a simplistic Purpose (or mission) statement lies.   It was easy to define what organisations “do” today, but what is more fundamental was defining how it changed the lives of the their customers and people they worked with, for the long term and for the better.

So, by defining “Purpose” in the same sense of a mission statement, and using that as a future statement, the LONGER TERM, FUTURE mission or purpose of the organisation would be clearer to state.

Meaning, is much more about today.  By thinking about what is meaningful, TODAY, the problem changes to a) Making sure that work is meaningful.  b) Making sure that a real difference is being made.  c) Making sure that they have in place the support mechanisms that help the front line staff deliver meaningful services.

This turns purpose into meaning-full action: action that is full of meaning

Meaningful work today helps to achieve the ultimate purpose or mission.  Lose that meaning, (anywhere in the organisation) and the purpose is also lost because it becomes empty (not full) words.

Reframing purpose statements to include meaning, today

So, what it appears to help by having  a three part statement.  Three parts that covered:

  1. “Meaningful work today”, working in the here and now,
  2. About “Purpose/mission” in the future, why they were heading where they were heading, and
  3. Their fundamental beliefs about “how they would help” changes come about.

What I like about having three parts, that explicitly include “meaning today”, is that it is a much more tangible set of statements than your usual glib, wildly aspirational mission or purpose statement.  It goes further (yet is nearer) because it explains why what you do today helps to deliver where you want to be.

Where does this apply – everywhere.

My current clients  might recognise themselves in this, but it was not written about them or because of them.  It applies to many organisations I have worked with:  Public sector organisations, call centres in insurance companies, charities, consultants, manufacturing companies, everyone.

In fact I think this issue of making sure work is meaningful (meaning-full) as well as purposeful (purpose-full) is universal.

We need to build it into both how we lead and how we manage, so that leadership and management and purposeful (purpose-full) and meaningful (meaning-full) as well.