There’s no more painful corporate ritual than writing or revising the mission statement. This is where a group of well-meaning leaders gather in a flip-chart-lined room for interminable, mind-numbing meetings, markers in hand, to torturously wordsmith themselves into consensus. At the end of the odyssey, these leaders emerge publicly excited but often privately frustrated, proclaiming, like Moses from the mountaintop, to possess magical words.
The leaders herald these miraculous words as the Ginsu knives of the English language, multifunctional to the last, with claims to motivate employees, attract customers, frighten competitors, and bolster the industry. They are likely to have a gold-framed, company-president-signed version available for distribution, along with custom printed coffee cups, key chains, t-shirts, brochures, websites, and Post-It notes.
Does the mission statement typically fire up everyone? Does it fire up anyone? Maybe for a week. Then employees take the t-shirts and keychains home to their kids. The gold frames will be filed, roundly. There is no pulse-quickening. Instead, employees, customers, suppliers – everyone except execs and the statement’s authors – typically see the mission statement as vague, irrelevant, and disconnected from real work. The corporate Ginsu won’t even cut a tomato.
Why? Because companies don’t write specific, actionable goals. They write super-nice-sounding ad copy. This is fine for a brochure or trade show, but as a focal point for company change, such statements simply randomly re-arrange positive-sounding words. Scott Adams' Dilbert has a mission statement generator at his website that spits them out better than any committee.
Here’s a quick test. Some of the following are from the Dilbert site and some are from real companies.
Question: Which ones are real?
1. We strive to continually facilitate performance-based leadership skills to exceed customer expectations.
2. It is our job to enthusiastically coordinate ethical solutions to allow us to dramatically utilize quality materials while promoting personal employee growth.
3. We will meet the needs of our clients with uncompromising focus on quality and completion.
4. The customer can count on us to continually fashion economically sound paradigms so that we may endeavor to enthusiastically engineer cutting edge infrastructures.
5. Our mission is to develop cost-effective solutions that will meet the unique present and future requirements of our clients.
6. Our mission is to provide world class professional services to every client.
7. Create an environment in which satisfied customers, quality products, and bottom line profits go hand in hand.
Answer: Does it matter which ones are real? Not really -- because all of them are exceptionally meaningless generic expressions -- describing ideals instead of specifics.
Good mission statements provide relevant focus and clarity so people can make insightful decisions. For example, when raising kids, we all know that “don’t hit your brother” tends to stop misbehavior more than “be nice to your brother.” Similarly, specific missions tend to move people more reliably to right actions.
Missions are big time-bounded tasks that describe outcomes. Don’t feel pressured to write just one. It is perfectly acceptable to have several in place at once – there is no need to collapse everything into one sentence. Three to five well-crafted mission statements allow easier alignment with a company’s planning and implementing, budgets and headcount.
An effective mission tells of a specific result. Be SMART: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bounded. One good mission statement formula is:
Action on issue A from point B to point C by time T, for example:
1. Close on a $10M engineering project (up from $5M) by the end of 2009.
2. Increase $750,000 more commissions next quarter to send ten people to Harvard’s executive program in March.
3. Get hired by ten of the Fortune 500, up from two now, by the end of next year.
4. Next year, we’ll have ten percent fewer deaths by infection than in 2008.
There are some political drawbacks to this method. Being specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bounded instills accountability. Some company cultures tend to suppress accountability. Instead of being motivated by specifics, people fear reprisal if goals are not met, so they hedge in generalities -- vague, nice-sounding missions which allow the easy declaration of success at any time. Does this dynamic describe your firm?
The next time some one puts a marker in your hand and sends you into a room lined with flip charts, take this article.
Give people a clear, specific, meaningful, relevant mission and they have focus and accountability. Save the nice-sounding ad copy for the marketing department!