Talking Point: The Disney Institute Blog

Mission Versus Purpose: What’s the Difference?

April 23, 2015 by Bruce Jones, Senior Programming Director, Disney Institute

Last year, Harvard Business Review published an interesting article, Your Company’s Purpose Is Not Its Mission, Vision or Values, in which the author questions the need for a compelling purpose. He argues there are already many different labels that describe organizational direction, but do we need yet another? 

The author ultimately agrees that, yes, we do need another way to describe organizational direction, and then he goes on to define a vision statement, mission, values and principles, before asking the key question, “How does purpose differ from all the above?” It’s a great question, and is something our Disney Institute team is asked a lot.

So, what is the difference between an organization’s mission and its common purpose?

First, let’s begin by defining a “mission.” According to the HBR article, a mission is something that describes the organizations business, and it projects into the future to provide focus for management and staff.  

Next, let’s define a “purpose.” Typically, I start my explanation of purpose with some historical context. In 1960, in a speech by David Packard to Hewlett-Packard’s training group, he said, “I want to discuss why a company exists in the first place. In other words, why are we here? I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being.”

Packard continued, “Purpose (which should last at least 100 years) should not be confused with specific goals or business strategies (which should change many times in 100 years). Whereas you might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, you cannot fulfill a purpose; it’s like a guiding star on the horizon—forever pursued but never reached. Yet although purpose itself does not change, it does inspire change. The very fact that purpose can never be fully realized means that an organization can never stop stimulating change and progress.”

Now, you’re probably wondering, what is the connection between David Packard, Walt Disney, and the concept of purpose? The fact is that HP’s first product was a sound oscillator sold to Walt Disney Studios for use on the soundtrack of Fantasia. Given David Packard’s speech occurred in 1960, it’s possible that he was influenced by people like Van Arsdale France, who in 1955 founded the “University of Disneyland,” and was tasked with creating a training program for those who would bring Walt’s dream of Disneyland to life.

As he was preparing to pitch what would become the purpose of Disneyland to Walt and Roy Disney, Van Arsdale France once said, “My goal, as I saw it, was to get everyone we hired to share in an intangible dream, and not just working for a paycheck.”

Van recounted the experience…“And here were top executives, all of them right there, and I had to get up and say ‘And now our theme: the purpose of Disneyland is to create happiness for others.’ And you see, the beautiful thing about saying, ‘We’re going to create happiness’ was then I could say, ‘Look, you may park cars, clean up the place, sweep the place, work graveyard and everything else, but whatever you do is contributing to creating happiness for others.’”

For me, that has been the key learning: the “host of labels out there that describe organizational direction” can seem overwhelming, or confusing, and, in too many organizations, very few people can recite, or even recall them without referring to their notes. Van’s particular genius was to create a single unifying principle that connects every Cast Member with the emotional aspirations of our Guests. He explained this common purpose using the French phrase, “raison d’etre” (reason for being), and it’s what drives the extra effort, the creativity, the teamwork, and the extraordinary Guest focus that Disney is known for.

So, what is the difference? Take a look below:


Why is this concept so important for organizations today? I think that Simon Sinek, author of, “Start With Why” explains it best:

“Studies show that over 80 percent of Americans do not have their dream job. If more knew how to build organizations that inspire, we could live in a world in which that statistic was the reverse—a world in which over 80 percent of people loved their jobs. People who love going to work are more productive and more creative. They go home happier and have happier families. They treat their colleagues and clients and customers better. Inspired employees make for stronger companies and stronger economies.”

Now, that sounds like a purpose we all can believe in! How does your organization define its purpose?

We’d love to hear from you! 
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Posted in Employee Engagement | Tagged Culture, Organizational Culture, Selection, Training, Engagement, Mission, Purpose Common Purpose, Van Arsdale France, Bruce Jones | 4 Comments

4 Responses to Mission Versus Purpose: What’s the Difference?

  • Keith says:

    on May 03, 2015

    Thanks for helping me think this through! As a Christ-follower, my purpose (and that of my company) is to build Leaders and Organizations that treat their People, Partners, Clients and Community with dignity and love. I've now included this Purpose Statement on both my website and blog. Thanks!

  • MIchael says:

    on May 13, 2015

    An interesting commentary. It all depends on how one wishes to define the words. The definition we have always used for Mission Statements is, "Why do you exist, what is your purpose?" So I'm 100% in agreement this is an important thing to do. Unfortunately most organizations develop Mission, Vision and Value type statements that sound good, but they end up being generic "Motherhood and Apple Pie" type statements that could/should apply to any company. Since they are so general, they have no real meaning. Statements like, “we are the best or Our Customers are important” or “Our Employees are important.” All companies aspire to some degree to be the best. Whether you have a Mission and a Purpose Statement is not critical. What is critical is the belief of the leadership team. The Disney Purpose statement has driven the company for many years. There were a few brief periods in time where the Disney organization seemed to lose sight of the purpose statement above, but ultimately your leaders came back to that essence. Most organizations don't have something that deep or meaningful to pull them back to center. Most other organizations do not have that committed focal point of an external impact on regarding "Why they exist?" Simon Sinek’s videos very much capture the essence of this issue. I don't think the solution is yet one more noble platitude on a wall plaque. It's more about a leadership team committing to a vision, mission or operating philosophy that goes beyond profits and "a what's in it for me as the leader" type way of operating. Something the leadership team holds itself accountable for doing.

  • Joe says:

    on August 13, 2015

    To understand our purpose, I must start with our vision. "We radically and positively impact the way small businesses operate, working through small business advisors." If we are going to work toward this vision, we must do everything possible to train and equip small business advisors and we must foster networking relationships between small business advisors. Those actions are our mission. Our purpose is: "We empower small business advisors."

  • Jessica says:

    on September 24, 2015

    Interesting discussion and so important to have this discussion with your team. Mission is a piece of the purpose puzzle and purpose is the reason behind the missions...very circular and inspiring.

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