Skip to content

What Characterizes Organizations that Work Mission-Driven?

21. Feb 2024

This article gives you eight qualities that must be present for mission-driven organizations to succeed. The qualities are applicable no matter your organizational structure – as long as you can create pockets for experiments. We also coin a new role for designers – their skills are pivotal in mission-driven and future-fit organizations

Long reads

To work mission-oriented, you need to organize for impact. But what does that mean? And is there an easy-to-follow recipe? Please.

The short answer is no. Sorry. Organizations are way too complex to make a three-step model on “How to organize for impact,” – not least when it comes to organizing to take on the multifaceted challenges that the world faces today.

However, through our work with private companies and public institutions that have taken on the responsibility to work for more than just black numbers on a bottom line, we have distilled some of the qualities needed to work mission-driven.

These qualities make it easier for organizations to maneuver the volatile problem space of unforeseen events, groundbreaking legislation, and the multiple crises we face.

As introduced, we will not give you the one model for organizing. However, the qualities mentioned here point to some internal shifts related to the concepts of trust and control that are necessary to meddle with. If you only practice this externally, you end up with a credibility issue as an organization.

The organizational form is up for debate as sociocracy, regenerative leadership, and other alternative forms of power distribution gain traction. However, even though we see a lot of advantages in organizing in a more flat, non-hierarchical way, we have also seen leaders who base their practice on trust and co-development in little pockets in even the most hierarchical organizations, such as hospitals.

Thus, the qualities we advocate for in this article are applicable no matter your organizational structure. So, continue reading even if you do not have the opportunity to turn the whole company structure upside down. 

Instead, look for ways to enhance these qualities in your organization:

  • The first quality, impact-driven, is non-negotiable when working mission-oriented. 
  • The next three, connected, open, and engaging, are nuances of working with your environment – internally and externally.
  • The next three, caring, humble, courageous, have more of an inner character. It is more a way of being in the world. It is harder to put on a formula but vital when manifesting a change.
  • The last one, adaptable, can be integrated into your existing processes through experimental methods or ways of working.
  • Lastly, we pin out the designer’s role in creating and maintaining new organizational models because we see an opportunity for designers to take back the “design” of “organizational design.”

This article is part of our Mission Playbook.

Explore the other articles here.

Particular qualities of mission-driven organizations

1. They are impact-driven

You need a broader view of value creation to be a mission-oriented organization. It’s a prerequisite. You must strive for change on more bottom lines than just the economic one. The ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) framework is a comprehensive approach guiding businesses to integrate sustainability, social responsibility, and effective governance into their operation and decision-making process, and certifications such as B-Corp push this agenda forward. These frameworks give organizations a trajectory to follow but do not necessarily tell them how to start walking the more sustainable path.

Fundamentally, traditional business practices prioritize shareholders’ interests over other stakeholders, such as employees, customers, the community, and the environment. In contrast, adopting an impact-driven approach entails the establishment of governance structures that enable companies to uphold their mission and consider the needs of various stakeholders in decision-making processes, thereby creating a positive impact for all stakeholders in the long run.

The first step is to understand the scope of your work – that it has to do with more than just you and your immediate surroundings and how you are situated in them. Understanding how we collectively tackle wicked problems through missions may be helpful. In our article, Creating Real Impact: Why We Must Work Portfolio-Based with Missions, we explore and explain that.

2. They are connected

Thus, being impact-driven naturally entails that the organization is, to a large extent, connected to the outside world. That may sound self-evident because no man – or organization – is an island. By connected, we mean that there is an understanding of the complexity of the challenges and potentials the organization and its ecosystem are facing.

Organizations need to embrace those challenges and dive headfirst into them instead of trying to mitigate the market risk that the challenge may entail. For companies, this means having the capacity to break down complex matter into operational and actionable bits – products and services – that can help catalyze us forward as a society.

Connectedness also involves actively working on connecting with nature and the people in and around the organization. Understanding how everything is connected and how the different entities can fuel each other is what Bibus Sindby, a company in our program Decoupling 2030, does.

3. They are open

Connectedness is essential – but some degree of permeability is also needed internally and externally if you want to make a dent in the world. Practicing permeability means being able to listen to and be empathetic with your surroundings.

Operating openly also means opening up your business to catalyze new opportunities you cannot achieve alone. Try out our Circular Value Chain tool to inspire you to look at your value chain in a different light.

Certifications such as B-Corp are examples of working proactively with opening all aspects of your organization to customers and partners, and working fully or partly open-source is also a great example of how businesses build openness into their business model.

For more on open-source, take a look at our project OPENNEXT.

Lastly, practicing openness internally is at the core of being a self- or co-leading organization. At DDC, trust and transparency are two of our three non-negotiable pillars. That means all information is by default available to everyone – that does not mean everyone knows everything, but they know who to talk to or where to find information. By organizing this way, you ensure that individuals can act. That is pinned out even more in the next section on engaging.

4. They are engaging

Engaging is not just a nuance of openness. It is the deliberate action of mobilizing people towards a cause by creating a shared vision and fellowship to realize that vision instead of trying to convince people by pouring fuel on the burning platform.

As an organization, you must inspire with your vision of the future and your path to realize it and let other organizations join. By doing this, you blur out your company boundaries and take responsibility for the entire value chain you are part of.

Legislation such as The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive already dictates this development, which makes companies accountable for scope 3 emissions in 2026. Naturally, this is a challenge for all companies to adhere to since it implies that you are liable not only for your own actions but also for the actions of your collaboration partners. Engaging in a challenge such as this means you should ask yourself how to use it to develop your business further or position yourself as a relevant public body in light of these new requirements. And this is by no means an easy task! To make it more approachable, we have made a Mapping of EU Legal Requirements on Circular Economy with the Danish Chamber of Commerce.

And engagement has as much to do with the surrounding actors and the actors that comprise the organization. Doing it right may lead to a culture of intrapreneurship. A psychologically safe environment where employees are encouraged to think like entrepreneurs and to dare seek innovative solutions within the organization’s existing framework (The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmondson, 2018; Humanocracy by Hamel & Zanini, 2020). 

The ability to engage cannot be underestimated. One actor cannot tackle grand societal challenges alone. Solving them calls for collective action; therefore, we must empower as many individuals as possible to be part of the change. Organizations are collections of human beings, and it is humans, through organizations, that can release all the transformational energy we need to make the necessary grand societal shifts. Therefore, we have to engage the individuals.

5. They are caring

To some, “caring” may have a strange ring to it when used to describe organizational practice. However, the point itself lies in this strangeness.

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have estranged ourselves from the living systems and streams we are a part of. We have tried to optimize and sub-optimize every bit of our organizational reality. But the organizational reality is a construct. It is nothing more than what we make of it.

As the American anthropologist David Graeber states, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently” (The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, 2013).

In our optimization endeavors, we have forgotten that we are, first and foremost, a product of nature and just one link in the chain of the many generations that precede us and the many that, hopefully, will follow (read more about how working strategically with the future helps mobilize missions here.)

Therefore, mission-oriented organizations can care for and respect the planet and its people. That means a fundamental acceptance that we do not own the Earth’s resources and a sensibility toward future generations. From forcing ourselves to think three years ahead to thinking 20 or 50 years ahead and assessing what kind of impact our products and services may have on the environment and people of the future. And that demands an insistence on shifts in time horizons – how we measure our value creation from purely focusing on short-term gains to a more dynamic view on value creation that perpetually matches the short-term gains against the long-term impact we want to create.

Read more about how we approach that challenge here.

Being a caring organization also means taking on social responsibility and supporting the well-being of the people in and around the organization. For instance, securing the employee’s well-being is crucial when working with high-complexity challenges because well-being creates an environment that fosters creativity and innovation and strengthens social bonds and cohesion. For an individual status on our thriving, we use our Spiderweb tool. Here, you can determine the important parameters for your organization and structure a dialogue around those.

6. They are humble 

Do you dare say that you do not have all the answers and need help solving a complex problem?

We need to practice not getting recognition for our work. It sounds strange, but as long as we focus on our gains and set individual KPIs for our immediate goals, we keep running around after each our own ball – instead of starting to play together to achieve the big goal. We must practice co-creating solutions and sharing successes (and failures!) equally.

We cannot pivot markets or create new and groundbreaking solutions by ourselves – we must chip in with all our different strengths and perspectives.

An example of this is companies that are not afraid to share their failures because they can serve as valuable lessons for themselves and others. For instance, when LEGO discarded their work on rPET, which created a so-called shitstorm on social media. To answer this, their VP Tim Brooks went public saying that sometimes innovation leads to dead ends.

By doing this, they can push the transition towards the use of sustainable plastic solutions for production forward even faster and, at the same time, also appear more credible than if they had just proceeded with the less sustainable solution in fear of losing face.

Being humble also means being mindful of the sometimes vast repercussions the products or processes we invent can have on their surroundings. We must consider how we ensure that what we send out into the world creates something good. For instance, our toolkit, The Digital Ethics Compass, has humility built into it at its core. The ethical questions it poses force a discussion of the higher purpose of products and processes in the development process and aid us to do the right thing even though no one is watching. 

When we start working in a mission-driven manner across public organizations, governance institutions, and private companies, transparency and humility are crucial. Because of the interconnectedness and the shared goal – the mission – sharing learnings and daring to say that there is something we do not have the answer to becomes paramount.

7. They are courageous

The organizations that dare take the steps towards working mission-driven have to be courageous. Because it takes courage to throw your vanity out the window, be humble and open about your learnings.

Having a clear vision of where you want specific parts of our society to be heading and a clear story and strategy of how your organization can contribute are some of the elements that can bolster organizations – and the people in them – to be more courageous and dare work against the stream in completely new ways.

Courage is also one of the most consistent characteristics we have detected among people who spearhead the circular transition. And it is one of the 10 actions that set the direction for an irresistible circular society we identified with 30 partners.

8. They are adaptable

Coining the state of the world we live in is a genre on its own. However, whether you see it as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous), BANI (brittle, anxious, non-linear, incomprehensible), or something else, one thing is for sure – adaptability is not an option; it is a demand. 

Yet, we still run our private and public organizations as if we can foresee what happens in one, three, or sometimes five years when we decide how to create value and measure our value creation.

Being adaptable means creating space for experimenting and learning. You do not need to experiment with everything all the time. Still, you need to evaluate if the structures and processes of your organization foster or hinder a culture where failing and trying again and again is considered acceptable – and valuable, not least.

A lot of organizations have impressive setups for driving their product innovation forward. However, the risk tolerance and structure needed to do this are seldom transferred to other parts of the organization. That poses the threat of becoming stuck and risking your position in a market running faster than your innovation wagon can handle. It may not be because your organization’s offerings or products are outdated, but the structures, processes, people, or technology used to run the organization may fall behind.

You should equip and build an organization where it is possible to experiment with utilizing the new relevant technologies, regulations, barriers, resources, or actors.

We often use our Framework for Organizational Experiments to build and explore the capacity for experiments.

We go thoroughly through the framework in this article. But the five steps are shortly explained here:

  1. The future vision. Start by making a shared powerful image of the positive change you – as an organization – want to create in the world. Your impact. It does not have to be a clear-cut, fully equipped vision for you to move on, but you need to start the conversation and shed light on the different perspectives in the organization.
  2. Potentials for change. Look at your organization – all the different dimensions of it as described in our Organizational Design Star. Which aspects of it are helping you move closer to realizing your future vision, and which aspects are holding you back? Engaging as many colleagues in this as possible helps you gain ownership of the coming changes. Opening up this space can be very overwhelming! At least, that is our experience – when we let our minds flow more freely and start looking at what could be different, great potential emerges. A priority graph may be a helpful tool to help you choose between all the great potentials. Try using “Impact” and “Availability” as criteria.
  3. Set up your hypotheses. What do you believe will change and why? Try our Assumptions Mapping tool to get started.
  4. Start experimenting!
    Plan your actions. You need to be specific. Who should do what, when, and how? How do we secure the right conditions for the experiment to succeed? We suggest you look at the following tools for inspiration and places to start: Storyboard, User Story Generator, and Service Journey. Document what happens. Find an easy way to test your hypotheses and collect data on what happens when you start. That does not have to be complicated – some dots on a poster, ticking off a box, or a semi-structured interview might be enough. Making it happen – and keep doing it – is the hard part. Analyze what you see. Make sure to take the time to sensemake your data. Having a few colleagues invested in pushing the process forward is a good idea, but validating findings with other colleagues is valuable in nailing the proper analysis and creating ownership. You can get inspiration from our Recognizing Patterns tool. Learn from your experiences. What implications do the results have? This step is easily overlooked once we have gathered data and maybe done the analysis. This step is meant as a catalyst for doing the whole process again; should we alter the experiment to sharpen our hypothesis, or has it been successful enough for us to scale it? Then, plan that action!
  5. Repeat. Do it again and again and again. Some of your experiments may end up being implemented right away. Some may need some rounds in the experiment cycle – altered, sharpened, and changed just a bit in their focus to create valuable change.

Working this way does not mean that all parts of the organization should be up for debate. You have to be very clear on which parts of the organization are open to change and which are not. But there is no doubt this approach and framework builds adaptability.

9. A new role for the designer

Designers is pivotal in bringing their skills into play in these mission-driven and future-fit organizations.

We can utilize the designer’s skill set:

… to understand people’s needs – whether it is the colleague, the customer, or the chairperson of the board

…to reframe the challenge from something we need to mitigate to something we want to obtain

…to create a development space where possibilities can flourish and be nurtured with a range of different values and perspectives to develop the more long-lasting and impactful solutions

…to facilitate experiments on more than just products and processes but also how we organize

…to take a holistic approach and work across the silos for the sake of the greater good and map the implications that changes in products, processes or organizational structures might have on other interlinked products, processes and organizational structures   

…to make the future vision and the steps ahead visible and tangible so people can act upon them.

The designer becomes a society shaper – a term we’ve discussed with Professor Ida Engholm. They give form to systems and strategic solutions and embed societal responsibility in developing new materials and products. The designer is a key to creating a viable, livable society of tomorrow.

As with all our pieces on mission-driven innovation, they contribute to an emerging field, both theoretical and practical. Therefore, we continue to learn, experiment, and share new insights.

Yet, we see a clear-cut role for the designer and a vital role for companies in building sustainable businesses and contributing to a sustainable society.

Fundamentally, we hope to spark dialogue and engage in more conversations that can propel our collective development forward.

Related articles, tools, cases, and projects:

Can’t get enough of design and innovation? We hear you. And we have you covered.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest from our world delivered straight to your inbox.

Sign up for the ddc newsletter


Bryghuspladsen 8
BLOX, 2. floor
1473 Copenhagen
CVR 3699 4126


Dyrehavevej 116
Design School Kolding
6000 Kolding
CVR 3699 4126

Unless otherwise stated, all content on this website is presented under the Creative Commons Attribution License.