The ‘What,’ ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Mission Statements
In a long history of looking at mission statements, researchers and practitioners have almost universally acknowledged the value of a singular mission as a driving force for companies – and yet have been inconsistent in advising what a great mission statement might look like.
I’ve been examining mission statements for the past two decades and have concluded that company efforts tend to fall into one of five categories:
The Well-Designed Mission Statement
With this type of mission statement, senior management knows where it’s taking the organization and works with employees to keep it top of mind.
• Keyword: Empowerment! Employees have a tangible direction.
The ‘We Finally Have a Mission Statement – Now Get Back to Work’ Mission Statement
It’s as if the company is saying, “This mission statement thing isn’t very important. Just meet budget. We put this out for the public – it’s full of words that no one can really disagree with.”
• Keyword: Embarrassment! Ask these employees about their mission, and 20 percent can tell you what it is (sort of) – but they will quickly admit that isn’t what they do each day and it doesn’t really matter.
The ‘Would You Consider a Vision, Statement of Purpose or Overarching Goal?’ Mission Statement
For such companies, specificity is clearly not their thing – they just prefer to be vague.
• Keywords: We loosely know what we want!
The ‘We’re Not Sure Who We Are, But We Have Values’ Mission Statement
For such companies, “As long as our employees honor these values, we can do anything.”
• Keyword: Confusion! Corporate assets in these companies are continually spent in an attempt to define the value concepts, while the companies spend inordinate effort to examine all possibilities for growth.
The ‘Statements Might Restrict Our Options, So We Have None’ Mission Statement
These companies will do anything to make money, increase market share and/or grow the business.
• Keyword: Desperation! Company resources are poured into any possibility for growth.
A “mission” statement has a unique ability to focus the efforts of every employee in the company if – and only if – it is designed well and is implemented with a singular focus that places it above all of the daily firefights at the company. We have found that “doing good” in the typical employee’s day is insufficient for the firm to truly set itself apart from the rest of its competitors. What one employee believes is “good” may exactly counter the efforts of another employee’s interpretation of “good.” On even a small scale, this creates a situation where everyone is working extremely hard, and yet the business seems to constantly achieve only average returns.
The Importance of Direction
An organization of people exists to accomplish what the individual cannot accomplish alone. The most pressing issue that develops as the organization grows is one of coordination. As was pointed out many years ago by Henry Mintzberg in his definitive book on structuring organizations, the issue of coordination is the continual struggle to get employee effort focused on the unique mission of the organization.
Once you have figured out what constitutes the competitive advantages for the organization, the implementation of that strategy (the competitive advantages) logically begins with a useful, focused mission (grounded in those advantages) that every individual in the company can use to make decisions. Well-trained, motivated employees absent an effective unifying mission will head in the direction they believe is best for the company. This may or may not align with the focus of the top management team.
The culmination of all the studies completed in this area, along with more than 20 years of assisting companies design effective mission statements, has led me to the development of a five-point approach to creating an effective mission statement. These five points should drive the “art” of designing a quality statement.
Five Keys to a Great Mission Statement
Short. Does it fit on a coffee mug?
Simple. It’s something everyone in the company can learn and understand.
Directional. It guides every individual in the company every day.
Actionable. It tells everyone exactly what the company does – and what it does not do.
Measurable. You must be able to develop a metric for every part of the statement.