Mission driven or mission accomplished?

At the heart of businesses I admire most are missions that aim to make the world a better place. It’s an attribute they have in common with most nonprofits. They also share with nonprofits a tendency to view their mission as a driver of their organization, not an end they plan to one day reach.

In a recent Huffington Post column, nonprofit consultant Thenera Bailey says social change organizations understand the need for long-term impact.

But too often along this road of change, many of us somehow get sidetracked. Creating sustainable solutions to social problems gets replaced by the creation of solutions that will sustain our organizations and keep our doors open… Non-profits need to be in the business of putting themselves out of business — not with unwise spending, but with strategic and long-term solutions that will put an end to their cause.

Why not hold business to the same standard?

Imagine this: A CEO stands in front of his or her team and proudly announces, “Congratulations, we’ve accomplished our mission as a business! As of today, the question we will be focusing on is whether to begin closing our company down or finding a new reason for being.”

Hard to picture, isn’t it? Why? My educated guess is businesses rarely identify missions with a concrete, measurable end point in mind. A point at which those who run the company know they’ve done what they or the founders ultimately set out to do. And now the choice is to either close up shop or start over.

I put this out there because I wonder whether “mission-driven” will be as good as it gets in business. Or might some of our most admirable companies hold themselves to an even higher standard — accomplishing their mission?

Patagonia and B Corps

Consider Patagonia. In January 2012, when Patagonia became the first company to register as a benefit corporation in California, company founder Yvon Chouinard applauded the new state legislation that provides a legal foundation for mission-driven businesses.

“Patagonia is trying to build a company that could last 100 years,” said Chouinard. “Benefit corporation legislation creates the legal framework to enable mission-driven companies like Patagonia to stay mission-driven through succession, capital raises, and even changes in ownership.”

I am one of Patagonia’s biggest fans. I am also an enthusiastic supporter of B Corps’ pioneering efforts to create a thriving sector of businesses driven by socially and environmentally responsible missions. And I think the problems in front of us ask us to complete our missions and produce lasting solutions.

Missions without end?

Awhile back, I came across a succinct and useful distinction between vision and mission: Vision is something to be pursued; mission is something to be accomplished.

Having reviewed hundreds of mission statements and helped organizations create or change their own, I am wondering whether we too often confuse vision for mission. Our missions routinely fail to establish an implicit or explicit point in the future when we’ve achieved our purpose as a business. Instead, the most we can say is we are in constant pursuit – we are mission-driven.

Patagonia’s mission statement, for example, reads: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

While I applaud the values demonstrated here, I don’t see where Patagonia’s purpose will ever be fulfilled. The quality of “best” is evolving constantly, so Patagonia won’t reach a point of having the best products and announcing “game over.” And “the” environmental crisis is sufficiently vague and unbounded as to be unsolvable, at least by any single entity. It reads more like a vision Patagonia is pursuing, along with their stakeholders and many other individuals and organizations across the globe.

The distinction between mission-driven and mission-accomplished isn’t simply splitting hairs. It’s significant. I can imagine being driven by a desire to build the best product while protecting and improving the environment. I could also imagine a company, like Patagonia, being driven by that desire for a century or more. But that also suggests a company’s mission — its reason for being — is without end.

Longevity vs. accomplishments

This begs the question: Is an organization’s longevity more important than its accomplishments?

Being driven to achieve something is much different than actually achieving it. The former means we’re motivated to keep trying for however long it takes. The latter means we can stop trying because we accomplished our goal. And now we have a new decision to make: Do we put an end to our business, satisfied that we achieved our mission, or do we find a new reason for being?

Thenera Bailey says social change nonprofits have raised millions of dollars and broadened awareness for issues such poverty, water security, HIV and human trafficking. “But at the end of the day,” she writes, “many of these issues are no closer to being solved than they were a decade ago.”

She’s right. What we desperately need are solutions. Patagonia and other benefit corporations give me great hope. And I also believe a higher calling awaits the mission-driven. It sounds something like this: Problem solved. Mission accomplished.

April 2nd, 2012

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