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Making Your Mission Operational (printable version)
A process model for transforming your mission into work

“The first job of the leader is to think through and define the mission of the institution.”  Peter Drucker.

The leader must transform the intentions of the institution’s owners, as reflected in its mission, into work that produces meaningful results.  This requires understanding the philosophy and thinking that created and guides the institution.  

The manner in which organizations choose to communicate their mission varies greatly from slogans, to big audacious goals, to vision statements, to simple statements of tasks performed.  These missions can be written or unwritten.  Regardless of the format used to express them, missions reflect a purpose and vision emanating from some very basic beliefs and assumptions that many times are implied rather than explicitly stated.  The leader must think through and interpret these explicit and implicit elements, the logic behind them, and their relevance to the realities facing the organization to transform its mission into meaningful work

All organizations are part of a larger society and their purpose, work, and vision (their mission) should reflect how they intend to contribute to this larger society. Missions stem from a set of core beliefs and assumptions that define the need for the organization and the results it expects to achieve.  These are the fundamentals upon which every organization is founded and are the source of its basic values and priorities.

Since society and the system in which the organization functions are in constant motion, its societal role changes over time and may eventually become obsolete.  Therefore it is prudent to periodically review the organization’s mission and the beliefs and assumptions upon which it is based to assess whether they still reflect the realities it faces.

High performance organizations are driven by a compelling sense of purpose and a challenging vision.  Effective leaders must define their organization’s formal (or implied) mission statement in terms that make it motivating and operational.  It is the leader’s interpretation of and enthusiasm for the organization’s purpose and vision that determines the commitment and energy level it receives from its workforce and the results it achieves. 


Purpose defines the fundamental reason for your organization’s existence.  It answers the question, “Why are we doing the things we are doing?”  Since the response to this question reflects a value judgment, purpose statements tend to be abstract.  Examples:

Our purpose is to create better things for better living through chemistry.

        Our purpose is to expand man’s knowledge of the universe.   

Because it is abstract, purpose may not be unique and different organizations could have the same or similar purposes.  Purpose is the source of commitment to the organization from its workforce, supporters, customers, and the community.  People are motivated by a cause they perceive to be noble and they enjoy being part of group sharing a common purpose.  The perceived value and appropriateness of your organization’s purpose determines the level of commitment and support it receives.  An inspiring and uplifting purpose will generate more commitment than one perceived to be superficial or self-serving.  For example, “expanding man’s knowledge of the universe” would probably be perceived as nobler than “conducting scientific research in outer space”.  Either statement could define the organization’s purpose but which one is chosen would likely have a significant impact on the level of commitment, energy, and enthusiasm it receives from its workforce and supporters (i.e. the Congress).

Vision is a picture of what the organization is trying to accomplish in carrying out its purpose.  It describes how the organization intends to focus its role or “business” in the future.  It answers the question, “What are we trying to create or achieve?” The vision statement should describe what will be accomplished, where and for whom.  While purpose tends to be abstract, vision is specific and measurable or at least assessable.  Examples:

Our vision is to be the worlds leading developer of synthetic materials and fabrics for commercial and industrial applications.

Our vision is to put a man on the moon and return him safely. 

While purpose may not be unique, vision is unique and differentiates the organization from others.  The perceived gap between your organization’s vision and its current reality is the source of the emotional energy that drives its actions.

Purpose and vision are often used synonymously with mission.  This approach has some pitfalls.  Using only the purpose as the mission statement does not communicate what the organization does or what it wants to accomplish.  Example:

Our mission is to create better things for better living through chemistry.

Since there is no gap between current reality and vision, this statement does not generate any emotional energy to drive its activities.

Using only the vision as the mission statement leaves out why the organization is engaged in this activity and why people should be committed to it.  Example: 

Our mission is to put a man on the moon and return him safely.

Since there is no stated reason for this effort, there is nothing to inspire commitment.  These statements can generate short-term enthusiasm but provide no enduring reason to maintain this support when things get tough.

Combining purpose and vision creates a more meaningful mission statement describing why the organization exists and what it intends to accomplish. 

Our mission is to create better things for better living through chemistry by becoming a world leading in developer of synthetic materials and fibers for commercial and industrial applications.

This mission statement is capable of generating commitment from its sense of purpose and emotional energy from its vision.

This website provides some models that will help you identify and examine your beliefs and assumptions and clarify your organization's purpose and vision.  See Examine Your Business Theory and A Strategic Thinking and Planning Workbook for Social Entrepreneurs and Nonprofit Executives.

Defining Your Mission and Goals

The following questions provide a structure to help leaders think through and define their organization’s mission.   They are also useful to help boards of directors develop a greater understanding of their organization’s mission and the leader’s task in converting it to work.

1.  What do you believe is the fundamental reason for your organization’s existence, its purpose?

  • Purpose answers the question, "Why are we doing the things we are doing?" 

  • Use your answer to this question to draft a statement defining your perception of your organization's purpose.

2.  What are the core beliefs and assumptions that explain and provide the rationale for your perception of the organization’s purpose?  

  • Core beliefs and assumptions answer the question, “Why are the things we are doing important?”

  • Core beliefs and assumptions provide the logic that identifies the need your organization intends to fulfill,

    • They are the source of the emotion that fuels commitment and support for your organization.

    • They define your organizations role in society and identify the recipients and beneficiaries of its products and services.

  • List the key beliefs and assumptions that you feel explain your organization's purpose.

3.  What work does your organization do to accomplish its purpose and who are the beneficiaries and recipients of its efforts?

  • Your organization’s work defines how it contributes to society and what it does to carry out its purpose.

  • Organizing and accomplishing work is how the leader achieves results.

  • Your organization's work must remain focused on those who are supposed to benefit from its results.

4.  What is your vision for your organization?  

  • Vision answers the question, "What are we trying to accomplish,
     where, and for whom ?"

  • Vision is usually expressed as a single overarching goal describing what the organization intends to accomplish.  

  • Use your answers to these questions to draft a statement describing how you define your organization's vision.

NOTE The leaders perception and definition of the organization’s purpose and vision sets its direction, scope, and energy level.  Therefore it must be consistent with the formal or implied mission of the organization.

5.  How will you measure vision attainment?

  • Identify the quantifiable indicators you will use to measure vision attainment and the values of these indicators that will define success.

6.   What are your key goals?

  • Goals are subdivisions of your vision that describe the operating, financial, social, and other conditions you must bring about to achieve your vision.

  • Goals provide clarity and depth to your vision.  They breakdown your vision into functions that identify the key activities that must be accomplished.

  • Goals establish the framework for formulating strategy and setting objectives.

7.  How do you measure these results?

  • Identify the quantifiable indicators you will use to measure goal accomplishment and the values of these indicators that will define success.

  • Write your goals and define how you will measure accomplishment.

Identifying the Barriers to Goal Attainment

Barriers are systems obstacles that impede the attainment of goals.  Barriers are not problems.  Barriers cannot be fixed or solved.  They must be recognized and dealt with or circumvented.  They are part of the context in which the organization's strategy is formulated and implemented.  Barriers originate from:

  • Mental models, images, and attitudes (workforce, customers, clients, investors, contributors, taxpayers, etc.).

  • Social norms and customs.

  • Industry competitive structure and life cycle stage.

  • Organizational culture and risk tolerance.

  • Socio-economic conditions and trends (demographics, economic growth, life styles, etc.).

  • Physical barriers that cannot be changed (distance from customers, state of the art technology limitations, geography, terrain conditions, language, etc.)

Barriers are root cause structural relationships that must be overcome or circumvented.  Identifying barriers to achieving your goals requires a systems perspective.  Barriers are not a lack of something, such as funds or resources.  They are real blocks.  They are the reason for the lack of funds or resources, such as outmoded funding strategies or conflicting priorities. Barriers are difficult to identify because they are frequently not obvious.  It generally requires root cause problem solving techniques to discover them.  The following technique may help you.

State each goal and answer the question, “What obstacles must we overcome to achieve this goal?”  If your answer is a lack of something, such as money, people, facilities, etc. follow with a second question.  “Why is lack of ----- a barrier?”  Continue asking “why” questions until you arrive at an answer that does not indicate a “lack of” something.  

This website contains a Root Cause Problem Solving Model that will show you how to discover root causes or you can contact Three Sigma for assistance.

 What barriers must you overcome to accomplish your goals?

  •  List your goals and identify the barriers to achieving each of them.  

    • Since barriers are root causes or system structural relationships, a single barrier may obstruct a number of goals.

Formulating Your Competitive or Operational Strategy

Strategy is the framework that guides the decisions that generate the actions that produce the results you want to achieve.  An effective strategy will enable you to overcome or circumvent the barriers to goal accomplishment.

Business organizations use a competitive strategy format that focuses on economic performance.  Non-profit organizations use an operational strategy format that focuses on social contribution and effectiveness.  Both of these models are available on this website.   

Setting Objectives

Setting objectives is the critical step in transforming your mission into work.  Objectives are the basis for work and assignments.  Objectives should define the work to be done with clear, unambiguous, measurable results, the timetable for completion, and the individual accountable.  Objectives are the vehicle for strategy implementation.

The work of setting objectives, work planning, and performance measurement is simplified by an organizational structure that identifies the functional activity needed to accomplish the organization’s work and facilitates communications among those accountable for results.  A formal organizational structure establishes accountability for results and clear lines of communication.

Three Sigma has a model on this website that can help you plan your work.  See Performance Measurement 101.

What is the work you must accomplish to achieve your goals?

  • List the objectives describing the work required to accomplish each of your goals.

    • Objectives are based on expectations which are informed guesses at best and depend on many factors that are beyond your control.  Therefore detailed planning more than 12 months into the future is usually unproductive.

    • The time required for goal accomplishment may extend beyond the time frame that can be reasonably planned so designing objectives in work tasks of 12 months or less will make planning easier and provide the flexibility to adjust to future uncertainties.

    • Objectives should include the critical performance standards required by your tactics and strategy.

What operating profit or operating margin will be needed to accomplish these objectives?

  • Balance these objectives against your profit or operating margin expectations.

    • The human, physical, and financial resources required must be identified and provided to those accountable for results.  

    • Objectives must be balanced against attainable profitability.  Profit planning is essential to ensure these objectives do not exceed the profitability with which the organization can expect to operate.  

Measuring Performance, Analyzing Variances, and Taking Corrective Action

Measuring performance, analyzing variances, and taking prompt corrective action are the final requirements for goal achievement.  

This website contains several models to help your organizational planning.  A Competitive Strategy Model will help you formulate your competitive strategy.   A Planning, Budgeting, and Performance Measurement Template guides you through the planning process and provides a vehicle to record your planning decisions, goals and objectives.   A Profit Planning Model will show you how to determine your operating profit requirements.    Performance Measurement 101 will show you how to develop a performance measurement process


Copyright 2003 Three Sigma, Inc.