Mission Drift: The Downside of Being Agile


I am a huge proponent of agile government or agile organizations. The only way this is possible is through deliberate strategic foresight, adaptability, and alignment. Foresight lets you prepare for unknown possibilities. Adaptability is an organization's characteristic of changing outward strategies based on macro-environmental and competitive forces, and alignment is the ability to realign the organization structure and processes to meet external changes. You may fail because of poor values, but in this article, I am assuming you have a reasonable articulation of values.


Failure that leads to mission drift occurs in any of the three spaces:

1. For survival: Often, when an organization or senior leadership team reaches survival mode, you find mission drift. This type of failure is the most dangerous as it starts a culture of us versus them and destroys the fabric of the organization from the inside. This type of mission drift is always an outcome of poor adoption of values.


2. Being opportunistic: This happens when time-sensitive opportunities are presented and are too tempting to deny. This type of mission drift failure is not always an outcome of poor values, but it is always an outcome of poor foresight. Here the organization responds to external pressures too often before setting up the processes or culture for change.


3. Being predatory: When leadership and culture become toxic and too competitive, you will find mission drift happening. Here the mission and values are more on paper but not implemented. The culture is competitive, toxic and employees spend more time managing each other, which helps the organization grow.


4. Being ignorant: This happens when the company's ethos gets lost as founders and critical leaders move, or the culture gets diluted when new employees are not onboarded carefully. This type of failure is most likely seen in organizations with poor Human Resource functions.


So which type of organization are you?


Mission drift happens when the governance processes you have crafted do not center on values. Most startups face mission drift as they have not articulated their mission and values in their business model. Another category of institutions suffering from mission drift are non-profits who do not have a sound monetization strategy. They will suffer mission drift as new grants come in, and they realign their purpose for funding requirements. Governments also face mission drift. It happens because of the political processes government organizations face and their need to manage diverse stakeholders with conflicting interests. Finally, large organizations face mission drift as missions become tag lines and buzz words rather than the core of how they will do business. So no institution is immune from mission drift.


How can you prevent mission drift?

1. Know your mission: Every employee must know the mission and how it is being or can be implemented. It will surprise you how few people (including the leaders know their mission, let alone values. Values need to be embedded into the mission as it provides guardrails on how you will conduct the organization's strategies.


2. Accountability: This starts with leaders who must talk and walk the mission. There will be grey areas – you may need use-cases and records to know why decisions and exceptions were taken. If exceptions become the norm, you are suffering from mission drift.


3. Externalization: A mission needs to be externalized in processes, products, and strategies. This requires you to look beyond metrics at the value chain. For example, focusing on carbon footprint, yet exporting and importing across the world? Focusing on paper – yet sending emails and storing them on the cloud (these have carbon footprints and create e-waste that is more toxic for the environment than carbon). Or focusing on people (just customers) but not employees? The list goes on.


4. Internalization: To prevent mission drift, you need internalization in the organization's DNA. Your people, structure, systems, and processes must reflect the values. For example, if you believe in gender equality – did you also reflect this in your suppliers – how many are women-owned companies? If you believe focus on supporting cancer through funding marathons – how many employees have you helped who are facing the same situation? Mission drift is evident in little things.


I am not saying you cannot change your mission. This is a natural progression of growth but when you say one thing and do others - you are suffering from mission drift. Be aware.