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Drifting effectively

The term “mission drift” is invariably used in a negative sense, but a new study co-authored by Dr Matthew Grimes of Cambridge Judge Business School says such change can benefit an organisation if skilfully managed.

Dandelion seeds in the sunlight drifting away across a fresh green morning background

The term “mission drift” is invariably used in a negative sense, to indicate that an organisation is veering from its central values into distracting or otherwise damaging new directions.

For instance, the phrase has been used pejoratively for social ventures like microfinance firms whose loans become larger and thus redirected away from their service to those individuals who might need them most. Big banks focused on integrity and competence in their mission statements, yet risky behaviour contributed to the financial crisis and led to mistrust in the banks.

A military variation of the term – “mission creep” – is similarly used derisively to describe campaigns that divert from an original narrow focus.

Yet “mission drift” need not be an undesirable course of action that harms an organisation’s public reputation or standing with stakeholders, argues a new study co-authored by Dr Matthew Grimes, Reader in Innovation & Organisation and Co-director of the Entrepreneurship Centre at University of Cambridge Judge Business School. Instead, actions that diverge from an originally stated mission can be turned to an organisation’s advantage by appearing responsive to changes within their operating environments and by carefully responding to audience concerns regarding authenticity.

“Our model challenges existing research that has exclusively regarded mission drift as a negative organisational outcome resulting from organisational mismanagement,” says the study published in the Academy of Management Review. “Although mission drift may present clear liabilities for organisations, it may offer unexpected benefits under particular conditions.”

The study thus argues that organisations can respond to perceptions of inauthenticity or unresponsiveness through “mission work”: this can take such forms as co-ordinated strategic extensions to the organisation’s image, or actions seen as “building upon” rather than “challenging” prior assumptions about the organisation’s image.

For example, Google’s original 1998 mission to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” was later followed by entry into new markets such as robotics, biotech and artificial intelligence – but the co-ordination of these moves “gave audiences the impression that these additions to Google’s business were intentional efforts to add to its existing identity as an information processing and search organisation,” the study says. Likewise, the move by Netflix to produce original content that fit its customers’ demonstrated preferences was seen as a responsive extension of its original distribution mission.

“The study does not advocate mission drift for its own sake, as a shift away from an organisation’s mission can have negative ramifications,” says co-author Dr Matthew Grimes. “But we argue that organisational shifts coupled with skilful mission work can prove advantageous to the organisation. The ultimate outcome need not be damaging, but can in fact be beneficial.”

The study therefore urges that organisations be seen not simply as “governance mechanisms” to protect values, but instead as “equilibrating mechanisms” that help co-ordinate the views and values of many different stakeholders.

Most if not all organisations are guided not “by a small number of stable and unambiguous values”, the study says, “but are “instead confronted by multiple co-existing, dynamic and often times incompatible, values” – so responding to these effectively can be a virtue rather than a burden.

“Inconsistent action gives rise to different perceptions of mission drift,” the study concludes. “When organisations effectively engage in mission work that appropriately addresses the liabilities associated with each type of drift, this effort should positively reshape the relationship between inconsistent actions and perceptions of mission drift.”

The study – entitled “Anchors aweigh: the sources, variety, and challenges of mission drift” – is co-authored by Dr Matthew Grimes of Cambridge Judge Business School, and by Dr Trenton A. Williams and Dr Eric Yanfei Zhao of Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.