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Margin or Mission:  Which One Should We Focus On?
By Scott Morrell

The Answer is Both!

How can an organization have sustainable meaning?  One could easily point to having a healthy economic engine. In the current economic environment, organizations must keep an eye on diminishing fiscal resources (i.e. Margin). Sometimes an organization can get fixated on their fiscal “bottom line” alone. It’s understandable. On the other hand, why does the organization exist? What is their mission or purpose?  So to have sustainable meaning should an organization focus on Margin or Mission? When we focus on Margin we experience positive outcomes such as: fiscal stability, cost effectiveness and revenue targets being met. When we focus on Mission we experience positive outcomes such as: making a difference in the world, focused direction and having a purpose-driven organization.

However, if we only focus on Margin or only Mission, we jeopardize the performance of the entire organization. When we recognize attending to both is essential and is supplemental to "either/or" thinking, we experience faster results, more sustainable performance and cultivate the entire organization. Therefore, we ought to teach our stakeholders to focus on Margin AND Mission for the sustainable results sought.

    An Actionable Road Map

    Consider that there is an active energy system (like gravity), acting upon us at all time, constantly pushing and pulling us between these valuable tension (i.e. Margin & Mission).  These polarities are unavoidable, indestructible and unsolvable.  How then shall we make sense of those reality?

    Most people are visual learners.  Graphically seeing the polarities with their upside and downsides is a good start.  However, identifying measurable Action Steps and Early Warning Signs, and assessing the performance of the polarities over time are vital.

    I recommend organizations start with measuring (empirically) how well they are presently leveraging each polarity of importance. Quick assessment results allow leaders and teams to see, with multiple stakeholder input, how well the organization is performing on each pole.

    Take Action

    In order to experience both upsides (e.g. the value of both Margin AND Mission), action steps should be created to define SMART goals: who? what? where? and when? These accountability measures help leaders, teams or an entire organization to mobilize the behaviors needed to focus on that pole. When living in upsides of both poles at the same time a greater purpose is achieved. In other words, if we maximize measurable behaviors in Margin AND Mission the organization will outperform organizations that only emphasis one pole over time. 



    Action Steps for Margin

    1.  Project budgets are completed using the company’s project management template.

    2.  Expand our sales force by 5% this fiscal year.

    3.  Set targets of 10% cost reductions in our annual travel and entertainment. 

    Action Steps for Mission

    1.  Create specific plans to achieve an A+ rating from our industry rating agency.

    2.  All business units must relate each of their annual projects to the company mission.

    3.  Include a section on the company’s history and purpose in new employee orientation programs.

    Warning Signs

    How would we know if one pole becomes more emphasized at the neglect of the other pole?  Early warning signs can point to the imbalance; they diagnose where attention is needed.  Early warning signs are also measurable things we can count for the purpose of informing the leader, team or organization they are trending downward on one pole.



    Early Warning Signs:  Margin Outcomes

    1.  We score lower than 90% on the quarterly operations survey on the item," We are a purpose driven


    2.  We postpone more than two projects in any given quarter because of cost concerns.

    3.  People in the organization complain at the “town hall” meetings that we are becoming solely a cost-

         driven company.


    Early Warning Signs:  Mission Outcomes 

    1.  We are ranked below the top quartile of the Quality Institute’s Low Cost Operating Companies.

    2.  We fall short of our Q1 revenue targets.

    3.  The finance department raises concerns in the weekly staff meeting about potential cost overruns.  


    There is No Mystery:  A Five Step Process

    A 5-Step Process allows an organization to fully diagnose and prescribe behaviors desired to achieve a competitive advantage and/or effective leadership.

    1.  SEEING - See an individual, team or organization and their Polarities more completely

    2.  MAPPING - Create quality and/or assessment ready Polarity Maps

    3.  ASSESSING - Assess how well key Polarities are being leveraged

    4.  LEARNING –  Make meaning of assessment results from diverse stakeholder perspectives

    5.  LEVERAGING – Achieve the greater purpose of each Polarity

    Stone Arch Organization Development has an innovative tool, Polarity Assessment for Continuity and Transformation (PACT) ™, available to help with mapping your Margin and Mission realities.