Values, mission, purpose, bored already?

esmeralda avellaneda
4 min readMar 31, 2022

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Incredibly out of date, yet still present in every organizational strategy

Photo by David Iskander on Unsplash

You’re starting from zero, rethinking your roadmap, and from inside the team, from the agency you hired, from that freelance person that seems promising, a few conversation starters come up: do you have a purpose? What’s your company’s mission? What are your values? Are all of these written somewhere?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done it myself, but it’s not always necessary and those times I get this prickly feeling that something is off. You see, I don’t like to waste other people’s time, nor mine.

A 2015 Deloitte Survey pointed out that 6 out of 10 millennials (a category that doesn’t mean much to me but I’ll take it) chose to work for their current employers due to their “sense of purpose.” This is the kind of Data used to support having a full tab on your website dedicated to Purpose, Vision, Mission, and Values. And communication experts have become experts in making it hard to sort out which is which. So you end up calling us to create manuals and guides and taglines. And, i mean, if you really want to know the difference between one and the other, knock yourself out, here’s Forbes’ definitions on it. But there’s no mystery to them, they’re just Evil I tell ya.

Why I don’t think everyone should have them

The Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab, when doing workplace cultural assessments in 2016, found that if you ask most employees about their organization’s vision or mission, about 80% don’t know it. My reading is that we shouldn’t force people to learn a few phrases by heart because we paid someone to write them for us. Or because we came up with them and now we think it’s a great idea everyone should get on board with.

These definitions should always reflect reality, and we should only have them if they mean something to us. Not just because everyone else has one and I have fomo. If you’re trying to fix an underlying problem with labels and made up purposes, people won’t remember them.

Whole Foods’ purpose is “to nourish people and the planet”. It’s great for marketing and aiming for the skies and maybe expanding to other industries. But I truly wonder if the cashier at Whole Foods knows or cares about this. Google on the other hand has a mission to “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”. Fair enough. Spot on. That I can buy.

One is a purpose, the other is a mission. I could sell you that one is the reason to do it, and the other is what you do. But what’s the real difference? I really liked an article on medium that answered my question impeccably:

“I basically don’t know and I basically don’t care.

Here’s the one word I think matters: what.

What are you doing? What are we here for? What’s in and what’s out?”

I loved it. Define what, and then call it whatever you find more appropriate: purpose, vision, objective. Whichever old fashioned word you feel most comfy in.

And it illustrates the point wonderfully with this example:

“‘What are you doing?”

“I’m mending my car”

“Why?”

“because I’m in the middle of completing my Atlantic-to-Pacific Pan-American road trip.”

You’re still answering what. You’ve just expanded the time scale because what and why aren’t separate categories. Why is just a way of asking for a different kind of what.

Big fan of this concept.

When you try to work it out the other way around, and distort the what to get to a pretty set of guidelines that pleases everyone and looks good on billboards and sites, you bump into a few walls that you should’ve seen coming from miles away. Such as:

  • The statements are too broad
  • The purpose is too existential (again, i’m sorry whole foods, but you sell groceries)
  • The values are not connected at all with how people work day to day inside the company nor how clients are treated. So no one really feels identified or connected to them, they just stand there alone.
  • You finish polishing them out and still have no real clarity as to where you’re headed.
  • You start working following the guidelines but you topple over because you realize they have nothing to do with reality.

Or maybe nothing happens. But no one cares. Not even you. You’re just happy you checked this to-do out of the list and now you feel more complete.

Purpose statements. Mission statements. Core values. Keys to excellence. Goals. KPI’s. You don’t need all of them. Or maybe you do, but at least make sure there’s a good reason why you do.

So, what’s a good reason why?

There is one question you have to ask yourself and the answer needs to be yes:

Am I going to use this and is this going to make my work better in any way?

It has to express the essence of what you offer. And if you think it’s helpful, if it will improve how people work, or the customer experience, and so on, then we can work on the how’s and why’s of this world in a way that inspires trust and credibility.

For example, McKinsey has the full package explained and justified. And it works for them and their target audience. While Ultimate Ears only has their “what” phrase, title-less and category-less (they don’t care if it’s mission or purpose) and their story. Because that’s all they need. Anything else is irrelevant.

So first things first, and then comes the categories and hierarchies of our storytelling. But don’t fall for this scheme just because it’s in our top of mind. If you do it, do it cause you mean it. We can label it later.

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esmeralda avellaneda

The things I actually care about when it comes to work.