Where's the mission of an enterprise?

In the many times I've taught Strategic Management to college seniors, I've made a big issue out of the mission of an enterprise. So often, a business will get so caught up in crises it will lose sight of its mission. It loses its sense of purpose, direction and meaning. The dedicated employees feel adrift in a sea of anxiety, pressures and obligations. They characterize themselves as slaves or whores, not as talented individuals worthy of respect. The loss of mission infects their self confidence, intrinsic motivations and eagerness to contribute to the overall effort.

When the mission statement feels lost, top management typically issues a "blanket statement" of platitudes that does nothing to alleviate the fallout. It functions as a wet blanket that puts out the last embers of passion, purpose and participation among the employees. By trying to offend no one, it offends everyone.

This morning I've been visualizing where we find the mission in spatial frameworks. I've concluded the location depends on the business model, strategy and structure in use. Within hierarchal institutions with excessive top-down authority, the mission hangs over everyone at the top. In flat, equally bottom-up/top-down, democratically-run enterprises, the mission provides the solid ground for everyone to stand on. Here's how those two positions for mission statements play out.

It makes sense to top executives in large hierarchies that mission statements belong above everything else. Like their structure with an all-knowing big-brain at the top of the organizational pyramid, the mission dictates from above the strategy to fulfill the mission. That strategy, in turn, defines the lowly tactics to implement the strategy. The mission plays an authoritative role, just like top management. Both presume that the big picture is inaccessible to those in the trenches and needs to be dictated by higher ups to the lower echelons. When employees see the mission, they are looking up to higher levels of consideration, outlook and comprehension.

On the contrary, it makes sense to servant leaders and mentors in flat organizations that the mission is the lowest common denominator. Like the structure that balances bottom-up with top-down flows of authority, the mission arises from those closest to the work, customers, delays, overruns and setbacks. It reminds everyone "why we're here", "what difference we're making", and "what our success depends upon". It puts all those varied efforts on solid ground. Individuals look down to the footing, basis and support for their efforts. The mission gives purpose, context and meaning to the daily grind, crises du jour and imposed changes. Because the mission weaves together so many different perspectives, it's more like a patchwork quilt, than a blanket. It speaks to the diversity of the community with commitments that ring true, rather than platitudes than cause eyes to roll.

Those at the top of hierarchies cannot handle a mission below everything. It would cause profound cognitive dissonance to place so much power, control and superiority far from themselves. Likewise, those relating among equals cannot cope with a mission above everything. It would disrupt the culture to centralize the authority, vision and responsiveness so far away from those in the know. So both positions for the mission endure, rather than migrate or flip/flop.

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