We often talk about an organization having a mission, as if the organization exists as some separate entity with its own individual will. But increasingly I’m wondering if that attribution hasn’t always been upside-down. Organizations don’t have missions. Missions have organizations. And when change is necessary, it’s important to know which changes which.
Of course, organizations in the legal sense are often entities separate from their owners, managers, or staff. Long ago, civil society decided to make them separate, and give them some of the rights of individuals — to be party to a contract, to establish ownership or obligation for the entity rather than for its parts. But this was always a legal and economic fiction, not a natural fact.
Somewhere along the way, we started stretching this fiction to consider the organization as some sort of collective organism. And we started talking about the organization having a mission, constructed and confirmed over time by its constituent parts. The mission could be changed, even as the organization remained much the same. Because the organization determined its mission, not the other way around.
But underneath it all, an organization is NOT a separate, sentient entity that can choose its purpose. It is a tool, a resource, a means by which people get things done. An organization is not an organism, it is a crosscut saw, made useful by its structure and design for a particular range of outcomes. When the crosscut saw no longer fits the task, it doesn’t redefine the carpenter or the blueprint, rather the carpenter reaches for a different tool.
Perhaps it’s all semantics, but here’s the larger point: When we consider the organization as a primary, sovereign self, our work inevitably turns toward ensuring its success, survival, and sovereignty. But the organization is not sovereign, nor is it a self. It’s a hand tool in service to a larger purpose. Let’s not be so precious, or so self-important, about changing it up or switching it out.