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Mission Driven or People Driven?

Is your organization mission or people driven?  Are the two mutually exclusive or can they co-exist?  I am confused.  The claim of being “mission-driven” has been increasingly cropping up in our conversations with association executives lately.  “Everything in our strategic plan is guided by our mission,” I am often told.  There is a definite sense of pride in this claim. I am not sure what it means but I am beginning to suspect that some of these executives derive more pride in showcasing mission-related initiatives than in solving practical member problems.  In practice, “mission-driven” seems to be more than a reference to an organizational model.  For many, it embodies a core identity; a raison d’être for associations. It represents all that differentiates them from mere “commerce.”  I wonder if this mentality is hindering many associations from open exploration, adaptability, reinvention and competitiveness—let alone value to members.  For example, paralyzing tensions stem from arbitrary divisions between “mission” and “profit,” and often result in incoherent systems that both need and disparage revenue. There seems to be a fundamental confusion about identity and role.

Let’s look at a definition of “mission-driven” organization by a firm that specializes in them:

A mission-driven organization can be a for-profit or non-profit, public or private, governmental or non-governmental, philanthropic or faith-based organization. In short, the mission-driven organization is formed and/or managed to accomplish a goal (or multiple goals) that extend beyond the profits of the stakeholders and include an individual, group, or societal benefit.

Below is also another definition I like, one for a demand or customer driven organization, that  comes from a white paper by Craig Marsh, Paul Sparrow and Martin Hird of Lancaster University.  A customer-centric organization is:

“…an organisation that is operated from a customer’s point of view. Rather than developing new products and attempting to convince consumers to purchase them, a customer centric firm develops products and services that customers need”

In theory, aspiring to a shared vision and mission beyond immediate profit or benefit can be invigorating and inspirational. It is not limited to associations either. Increasingly, market leading businesses engage customers in collective missions and aspirations beyond transactions to elevate the sense of community on a more strategic and transcendent level.

However, in customer-centric organizations value to the customer is still the driver of both strategy and operations and is manifested in characteristics such as:

1)      Mass customization: finding the best possible proposition for a given customer

2)      Including the consumer in the design process

3)      Structuring around the customer, and not the product, policy, existing structures etc.

4)      Solutions vs. products

In “association worldview,” however, identifying with being “mission-driven,” is often a code for committing to the association’s rather than the member’s agenda. As a folklorist with anthropological training, I am used to breaking codes; uncovering underlying assumptions and hidden subtexts behind what is being stated. So this is what my interpretation of native systems of meaning might look like.

Statement Underlying values
We are mission driven Non- profits are nobler than and superior to business whose motives are purely mercenary.“Members” are not “customers.”  Serving   “customers” is beneath usMission and revenue are incompatible. We must maintain the posture of not   caring about revenue. 
Our mission is the reason members join and what differentiates us from others. If members do not perceive our value, it’s their fault.  The only remedy is to improve the way we   communicate it to them, rather than change our programs or value proposition. 
Our mission and positions on issues bring us prestige Solving a practical member problem does not really contribute to our   prestige and is a lesser priority. 
Our planning is driven by our mission We don’t need to spend time in digging deeply into members’ mind to discover how they think and what they really need. We are not going to innovate or re-invent   our business model and value proposition to better serve members anyway, if   these innovations do not fit our mission. 
Our sight is focused on fulfilling our mission We value principles more than people.  We are change and risk averseWe are more interested in talking than listening; and in showcasing our own achievements than in figuring out how we can help members solve their challenges 
We have been loyal to our mission for decades (months, centuries etc.) We are focused on the past. There is no urgency in our actions and no motivation to adapt beyond the surface.  If something is good today, it will be good   tomorrow 
We are committed to our mission and vision We have a command-and-control system within which we are the exclusive content producers and distributors.  Co-development and knowledge sharing are of no value. 


One remarkable association, AAFP (American Academy of Family Physicians) seems to have no problem combining the two.

AAFP’s stated vision is to transform healthcare to achieve optimal health for everyone; and its mission to improve the health of patients, families, and communities by serving the needs of members with professionalism and creativity.   Yet AAFP grounds its mission in providing members with concrete value and frames the relationship between practical and ideal it in actionable terms: for family practice to flourish it has to meet the needs of patients in a changing health care environment; and for this alignment to occur, AAFP must assume a leadership role in transforming the discipline and helping physicians transform their practices.  The focus that drives AAFP is enabling members to solve the full range of challenges facing them and succeed. To this end, AAFP assumes offers them a comprehensive continuum of services —from improving their ability to practice to re-shaping the environment in which they practice.

AAFP went far beyond wish lists in transforming the healthcare environment by taking a leadership role in pioneering the seminal Future of Family Medicine project (FFM) that culminated with recommendations for a dramatic practice re-design on the basis of the “Patient-Centered Medical Home.”  Next, AAFP took on the challenge of shepherding the implementation of this model.   Instead of the usual path of board committees and endless deliberations, the AAFP launched TransforMED as a wholly owned subsidiary to lead and catalyze transformations in family medicine and primary care.

TransforMED chose an entrepreneurial and collaborative discovery process rather than an esoteric and formal planning exercise.  In June 2006, it launched an innovative 24-month National Demonstration Project (NDP) in which 36 family medicine practices from all across the United States participated in pilot-testing and adapting the new model. Based on this type of collaboration with members,  AAFP and  TransforMED have made enormous investments to support members on all points of the value chain, from customized support for practice re-design, peer learning and support networks;  to financial strategies and models; strategic alliances with corporate stakeholders; advocacy on the policy level; training and development.

AAFP has succeeded in engaging on multiple levels – individual and industry-wide; practical and strategic—while ensuring all the while that all efforts converge on one objective: members’ ability to succeed.   My own conclusion is that as long as associations serve members, they have to be people- rather than mission- or anything else-driven to claim a position of value in their markets, industries and professions.  



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ericlanke April 20, 2012 at 7:48 AM

Thought-provoking post, Anna. But who determines the mission? Doesn’t the answer to that question have the capacity to bridge the gap between what you call “mission-driven” and “people-driven”?

caraveli April 23, 2012 at 1:57 PM

Thanks Eric. Good question. Well, you are right that the more a mission is the product of co-development with members the more authentic.  The problem, however, is with the nature of “mission statement” and the way it is used.  Missions are by nature abstractions and not the stuff business and membership strategies are built on. Many associations confuse them with value proposition and strategic objectives. Take the mission of “saving patients’ lives” that a health organization proudly promotes. How many doctors wake up in the morning anxious about not killing anybody that day? While that is their ultimate goal, what “keeps them up” at night may be things like: how to get quick access to the latest research before it is published and on a 24/7 basis?  How can I get my practice financially viable in this tough economy and increase both the quality of patient care and my ability to make a living?  How can I train staff and align my entire practice with the patient-center medical home?  Gain access to hospital privileges with a PhD in health care vs. an MD?…….If you are focused on an abstract principle and expend efforts at, say, journal articles and conferences about it, you are not connecting with where your members really live and help them solve problems that will, in the end, improve patient care and save lives. Does it make sense?  For an association to make a difference in their members’ success, I think they have to start with where members live and help them solve the key challenges the “keep them up at night.” I appreciate your comment.

ericlanke April 23, 2012 at 8:01 PM

Anna, I agree that some missions are abstractions. I don’t agree that all of them are. Some missions ARE the stuff business and membership strategies are built on, as you demonstrate in your post when you cite the AAFP example. Do all associations live up to this standard? No. But many do, even if they don’t explicitly state it in their mission statements. Some associations, in fact, have purged the “by doing x, y and z” part from their mission statements because it is interpreted to tactical instead of strategic. That doesn’t mean they don’t do the tactical connection with the members, just that they don’t state it as part of the overall mission. 

caraveli April 23, 2012 at 10:10 PM

Hi Eric, you got me there. I didn’t realize that one could extrapolate from my argument that  mission should have nothing to do with strategy; or that only tactical concerns should guide a member-centric organization. Thank you for helping me think through this. I am not arguing against having a mission and vision to aspire to. And you are right to point out that in a healthy organization mission, strategy and operations are aligned (as in the case of AAFP). I am referring to the actual practice and behavior from both an anthropological and business perspective. In practice, identifying with being “mission-driven” usually translates into a provider and product centered culture, beliefs, assumptions, norms and services. From a management theory perspective the difference I pointed out in my post boils down to what ultimately drives what: Are the fundamental building blocks of an organization–e.g. definitions and categories of members; how value is defined and delivered; value proposition; market and industry role, etc.–determined on the basis of how well they fit its mission statement?  Or does the mission adapt to fit the changing industry boundaries, consumer needs,  definitions of value, etc. so that the organization ultimately delivers the maximum value to its members? 
In our research this far, organizations in the first category are slow to change and not adequately flexible to adapt to the rapid pace of change in consumer needs and today’s open systems of shared knowledge and distributed power.   By the way, by solving concrete member problems I am not refering to a tactical level of service.  On the contrary, being in the position of solving members’ strategic challenges requires a more consultative, customized approach than the off-the shelf benefit packages.  I appreciate your challenging my thinking every time it gets muddled or  vague. Clearly you have done a great deal of thinking and wring yourself on these topics. Thanks.

bburns April 24, 2012 at 10:31 AM

Organizations should be outcome-driven. The rest is frilly semantics.

ericlanke April 24, 2012 at 9:01 PM

Thank you, Anna, for challenging me back. I see the distinction you’re making between “strategic vs. tactical” and “mission-driven vs. people-driven” and I shouldn’t have muddled the two in my response. If I’m reading you right, you’re taking about the “sacred flame” that an organizational culture carries, almost without regard to the strategy and tactics it uses to accomplish it. You posited a dichotomy between organizations that preferentially honor the idea of “serving a higher cause” and those that “serve the needs of the members.” I’d be curious to see data on how stark that dichotomy is in the real world. I’d wager that most organizations have elements of both.

Anna Caraveli April 25, 2012 at 6:31 PM

Hi Eric: You are absolutely right to question dichotomies. I don’t believe that there are dichotomies in the real world. As you said, any model has elements of others. I see any type of model or category in terms of a living continuum from one pole to another. My assumption in developing programs, tools and approaches is that leaders should be able to identify where they are currently located within a continuum, where they would like to be and why. Any point in the continuum has positives and negatives. In my experience and research the continuum is not between mission and member-focus but between supply/provider orientation and customer/demand orientation. There are specific criteria for determining orientation such as measures of success, resource allocation, organizational structure, incentives and rewards, culture etc. There is a fascinating study in the business world that corelates market orientation with outcomes such as growth and the ability to adapt to change and turmoil.

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