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Missions Lead the Way to Action in the Wilderness of Complex Problems

01. Sep 2023

More organizations have to find the courage to work with mission-driven innovation if we are to succeed in solving the complex and wicked problems we face as a society and civilization. This approach is crucial to transitioning from merely identifying these complex challenges to achieving real impact. This article explores what a mission is and what it takes for organizations to work mission-oriented

Long reads

By Sara Solveig Ørnsholt, Anders Erlendsson & Sara Gry Striegler, DDC – Danish Design Center

In July 1969, two American astronauts landed on the moon. The mission was accomplished: to bring two people to the moon (and, of course, return them safely to Earth). This mission took seven years to complete and required enormous investment, risk-taking, new technologies, interventions, collaborations, and partnerships. It was bold, ambitious, and dangerous.

Since then, the concept of ‘missions’ has been applied in many different contexts, particularly in management literature and strategic processes aimed at developing the purpose of individual organizations.

In recent years, the concept has demonstrated potential within social innovation. Particularly since the Italian-American economics professor Mariana Mazzucato highlighted mission-driven innovation as an approach to address complex, wicked problems in her book The Entrepreneurial State (2013) and later in Mission Economy (2021).

The Wicked Series

This article is the third in a series of four:

The articles explore and explain how we work with wicked problems from a design- and mission-driven perspective.

The article is available in Danish on Impact Insider here.

Sara solveig ørnsholt

Photo: Oliver Herlitschek

At DDC – Danish Design Center, we are committed to addressing complex and systemic societal challenges through design based on mission-driven innovation. Working closely with foundations, companies, public institutions, and non-governmental organizations, we work to solve the complex and systemic problems related to, e.g., the increasing lack of well-being among young people, the circular transition in our society, and demographic development. We also work with various public organizations to build capacity, mobilize ecosystems, and provide direction within several areas of the Danish welfare society.

We see mission-driven innovation as a crucial approach to moving from identifying complex, systemic problems to achieving real and actual impact experienced by citizens, businesses, and institutions in our society.

Missions can be defined as:

  • Specific, long-term, time-bound goals with a particular focus on creating positive value for society and citizens
  • Meaningful, ambitious, visionary images of the preferred future that stimulate our collective imagination
  • Relevant to many different stakeholders, inviting and engaging
  • Cross-sector and interdisciplinary: missions transcend the individual organization’s position within the sector, its key competencies, and what traditionally influences decision-making
  • Top-down and bottom-up: Involving the political level as well as administrations, public actors, businesses, research, civil society, and citizens
  • Realized through a portfolio of innovative interventions (projects, efforts, services, training, communication, etc.).

Innovation turned upside down

At first glance, mission-driven innovation may seem at odds with traditional innovation because this approach turns familiar processes, workflows, and logic on their head:


Traditional innovation


Mission-oriented innovation

Opportunity oriented

Developing for the future based on the current understanding of the problem  We position ourselves in the future and establish an image of what we dream of
Focus on a few large scale projects to remedy the problem Focus on the broad spectrum and portfolio of different efforts that together that in combination affect the problem
Competing about funding and resources Cooperation on funding and resources
Top-down OR bottom-up Top-down AND bottom-up
Governance is an expense Governance is an investment

Model 3: Traditional innovation vs. mission-oriented innovation – inspired by Mariana Mazzucato 

Building on and extending Mazzucato’s model for establishing and managing missions, there have been exciting new developments in mission-driven innovation in recent years, both in Denmark and across the Nordic region. Inspired by Mazzucato’s ground-breaking work, many organizations are experimenting with new ways of doing things.

For example, the Swedish innovation fund Vinnova has for several years worked to ensure that all Swedish children have equal access to healthy and nutritious school meals. This extensive mission encompasses a wide range of aspects – from imparting knowledge about food and food culture to streamlining food production and logistics, combating food waste, and improving conditions for farmers producing sustainable food.

The wild and complex problems that we all are increasingly aware of and affected by – such as the recruitment crisis, lack of well-being in the labor market, and the demographic composition of our society – are indeed complex and particularly wicked. And perhaps of a slightly different character than the incredible moon mission that succeeded in 1969. It was complicated but not complex or wicked.

Today, we are all increasingly aware of and affected by complex, wicked problems. Whether it is the ongoing recruitment crisis, problems with well-being in the workplace, or the changing demographic makeup of our society, these problems are indeed complex and wicked. These problems are indeed different from the historic mission accomplished in 1969, which was complex but not wicked.

However, the question arises: Can we work with the “wicked problems” in a mission-oriented way? Problems that cannot be defined as either/or – and problems that don’t have clearly defined goals and outcomes. Yes, we can!

The moon landing was a mission focused on a specific event and was considered complete when Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. Systemic problems, however, are different. They don’t go away, and we must acknowledge that we may never fully solve them.

One example is our work with the Partnership for Radical Innovation of The Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (KS) in Norway. We are working with them to explore how they use a mission-driven approach to create better transitions from youth to young adulthood for people in vulnerable positions. Despite numerous well-intentioned and concrete measures, the scale of the problem has not changed significantly over the past 30 years.

Services and interventions alone have not been able to bring about the desired impact. That is partly due to the systemic structures, which lead to unnecessary and perhaps even counterproductive transitions. In addition, the systems’ perception of these problems and their solutions have been quite one-dimensional. Also, there has been a lack of attention on how these problems and their interrelationships constantly evolve and change in form, manifestation, and character.

Change is inevitable. Thus, we must continuously learn about how challenges change and evolve. Also, we have to be willing to change our goals and indicators as we learn and get smarter. We must incorporate continuous learning loops to ensure we acquire knowledge and experience from individual initiatives and at the portfolio level. It’s key to note when we intervene with systems, they change in character. The indicators of success within our mission will do the same.

Anders Erlendsson

Photo: Oliver Herlitschek

Three Dimensions of the Mission

In recent years at DDC, we discovered that setting up and initiating a mission calls for a distinctive emphasis on three interrelated areas:

Setting direction
When guiding action and mobilizing participants toward change, it is important to set a common and ambitious direction. Given the complexity of systemic problems, we cannot create an all-encompassing theory of change that dictates exactly how to achieve our shared goals. In this regard, missions serve as a vector: they provide the direction we need to pursue together without prescribing the exact methods.

Mobilizing ecosystems
Changing a system requires the interaction of many different forces and resources. Mission-driven innovation, with its myriad possibilities, cannot be accomplished by one or a few actors. Existing system resources must be mobilized, possibly within new contexts and collaborations.

Building capacity
Building capacity is about establishing infrastructure and fostering competencies that enable continuous learning and evolution of the system. To work effectively toward a shared mission, all stakeholders must maintain the necessary capacity over time. Key components such as methods, knowledge, skills, networks, funding, and organizational components—including leadership—must be in place for the ecosystem to attain the shared goals of the mission.

Recognizing that these three areas are dynamic and constantly evolving is important. Therefore, a fundamental premise of mission-driven work is simultaneously and continuously addressing these three areas as the mission unfolds.

How to set a common direction

At DDC, we agree with Mariana Mazzucato that it is important to have a goal when working with missions. However, the approach to this common goal can be very different.

Our goal should be a stimulating and motivating beacon, sustaining our joint focus when daily hurdles obscure our headway. The direction or vision we collectively strive towards can function as a systematic guide or creative boundary, shaping our daily tasks and long-term strategic decisions.

An example of direction beyond mere declaration is seen in Vorby. A city that represents the future paradigm that guides our mission work focused on the well-being of young people, “Thriving Youth,” here at DDC. In Vorby, you can explore areas and interact with people who embody the city’s seven core values and principles.

These fundamental principles offer a vivid, tactile visualization of the future and describe the values that define the mission – proposing an alternative path toward change. A path that may seem utopian to some, yet for others, particularly those who want to break new ground, it is invigorating, engaging, and motivating.

Mobilizing towards the common goal

It’s a fundamental truth in mission-driven work that no one can create change on their own. The magic often happens in the cracks between systems, companies, administrations, and sectors affected by the problems. Establishing a common goal of what success looks like is imperative to bridging knowledge across these different systems.

Also, agreeing on our destination is one thing; ensuring cohesion among the actors and maintaining our shared ambition is another. Especially when there is no formal, central coordinating authority to supervise, lead, and distribute the work in a mission.

It requires that actors involved in the mission learn together. New connections and initiatives within and around the mission must be based on learning practices. That is the essence of the transition from competition under the traditional innovation approach to collaboration under the mission-driven innovation approach. Our goal must be constantly learning to the finish line rather than controlling the path to get there.

Learning forward model

Learning forward model

A powerful example of a proactive approach to mission-driven innovation at DDC is the Learning Forward model. The model accommodates the complexity and steers clear of oversimplifying the experimental and trial-and-error aspects of mission work. It recognizes that different initiatives should be evaluated on various parameters and paces and promotes cross-learning within the mission portfolio.

Each project within the mission portfolio contributes to changing the nature of the problem and bringing about positive change. Therefore, we place more emphasis on the overall impact of the mission portfolio as a whole than on demonstrating direct and causal relationships between cause and effect within single initiatives.

That means we should invest more in learning, particularly collective learning within the mission, rather than just reaching predefined milestones within our initiatives. ‘Learning Forward’ is a framework that allows us to intensify our focus on the many diverse aspects and objectives of our mission work without constant evaluation. We should be able to learn at different paces while staying alert about when it might be necessary to mobilize additional mission stakeholders.

The closer we are to a particular initiative, the faster we should learn from it, ensuring necessary adjustments, scaling, or possible termination.

  1. Learning from our actions and making necessary adjustments should be part of our routine practice without initiating extensive processes. This manifests through individual initiatives and calls for work processes that promote learning over mere execution.
  2. Changing our approach, learning from it, and eventually modifying it is not meant to happen at the same pace. This could potentially change the entire basis of our actions. At DDC, for example, our efforts would have a very different character if design were not part of our DNA. Instead, we should incorporate a variety of approaches to mission work, as this will lead to a broader spread of initiatives.
  3. If we change the course of our strategy, it will (naturally) affect a broader spectrum of the mission portfolio. For example, changing the principles in Vorby would be a significant strategic shift. If we, for instance, replaced the principle of focusing on prevention with a focus on treatment, the mission direction would take a substantially different approach, resulting in entirely distinct initiatives.
  4. Reframing the purpose affects everything that happens within the mission. The purpose itself is deeply value-based. Thus, the goal is not to be renegotiated frequently. However, as we gain new insights and expand our understanding of the problem, it becomes essential to make room for renegotiation, particularly when specific evidence suggests that the overarching purpose needs to change.

Beyond changes at the portfolio level, we should also allow for the possibility of terminating or replacing initiatives or actors that aren’t adding value to the mission. While this seems logical, it can lead to conflicts, as it may involve closing research projects, reallocating funds between projects, or changing the partner group. Thus, learning also becomes an integral part of a mission-oriented management model, requiring a significantly different approach from the people and organizations involved in the mission than traditional management models.

Both UNDP and the Centre for Public Impact offer valuable insights into how to demonstrate learning across a portfolio.

Photo: Anne Ravnholt Juelsen

How do we align ourselves, our organizations, and our systems to work mission-driven

What does it take to maintain innovative strategies while fostering necessary systemic resilience?

We need a new kind of leader – a ‘mission manager’ committed to addressing and consistently driving the required change in mission-driven work. The responsibility of a mission manager is to realize the long-term goals of the mission rather than catering to the individual interests of individual companies or organizations. Mission managers navigate at different levels and speeds, as described in the Learning Forward Tool; they facilitate learning among the various groups involved in the mission.

The ROCKWOOL Foundation’s employment initiative, NExTWORK, targeting young people in vulnerable positions, is a concrete example of a project that has explored and experimented with designing and implementing a sustainable management model and learning mechanism. Within this initiative, three all-encompassing, guiding, and value-driven principles have emerged:

  • Shift the Power – transitioning from case workers to young people and businesses
  • Many-to-many relationships – as opposed to one-to-one relationships
  • Work identity – as opposed to personal development.

Instead of designing the initiative around pre-set activities and events, the employees in NExTWORK had the flexibility to continually adjust specific actions within the initiative as long as they aligned with these three core principles. In addition to the principles, a collective, design-inspired learning mechanism is at the heart of the initiative. That supports the NExTWORK team in experimenting with new ideas, collecting feedback, and making necessary adjustments.

The mission manager focuses on leadership and learning mechanisms and is responsible for creating awareness of the mission outcomes. That brings us to a crucial question: What are the most suitable methods for documenting the results of the individual solutions in the portfolio and their collective impact?

While randomized control trials are often considered the best standard in evidence-based impact assessment, we encounter some fundamental challenges with this method here at DDC.

Firstly, the systemic problems we address are of such complexity and intricacy that individual solutions can’t resolve them alone. That diminishes the significance of the impact of isolated efforts.

Secondly, a fundamental principle of randomized control trials is that the type of treatment or intervention must remain unchanged throughout the trial. However, our environment and our systems are in a constant state of change. They are dynamic, often meaning that treatments or interventions may be obsolete when an impact assessment occurs.

Lastly, randomized control trials are based on existing data and specific measurement logics. This approach cements the existing understanding of the problem and thus freezes the purpose of systems, the potential for change, and particular solutions considered legitimate, meaningful, and desirable.

In mission-driven work, the power to transform systems lies in the collective effort of public, private, civic, and volunteer stakeholders who unite to create change. That requires a shared direction and the mobilization of ecosystems, mutual understanding, and new collaboration methods. Also, it calls for a standard set of tools and a shared language. 

That is why we at DDC have launched a new Scandinavian course and community of practice focusing specifically on system innovation. While the course aims to bring together people from different backgrounds and lay the groundwork for shared dialog, the real goal of the community of practice is to foster the ongoing exchange of insights and facilitate new collaborations. That may even expand to cross-border missions in the coming years.

After all, these wicked problems affect us all, and we can only solve them by working together.

Related articles, tools, cases, and projects:

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