“You have to draft a Mission Statement,” cried our consultant, passion in his voice. “According to a recent study, every successful organization has one!”

It seemed like a harmless enough way to keep all of us managers … uh, leaders … out of our employees’ hair, so I refrained from asking how many unsuccessful organizations also had Mission Statements. The whole management team toiled away and, after several drafts (43 as I recall) we came up with suitably dull phrasing that encompassed everything we did as a division, offended nobody, and pleased our consultant immensely.

An entirely worthless bit of prose, typical of the genre.

Why do some Mission Statements seem to create energy while the vast majority seem to generate ennui instead? What’s the difference between a Charter, Mission Statement, and Vision, and why all three? Aren’t they all really pointless exercises in wordsmithery, distractions from the real work of whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing?

These documents should create real value. Before looking at why so many go wrong, let’s look at the role each one plays.

As with a lot of internal organizational theory, the idea of creating these documents stems from their utility in helping whole businesses figure themselves out. For a business, its Charter defines the business it’s in, its Mission defines its market positioning, and its Vision explains its significance – how it will improve whatever marketspace it participates in.
Which leads to a useful question: do principles for managing a business scale down to divisions, departments and teams? The answer, in this case, is an unequivocal “probably”.

You certainly need to understand your Charter. It ensures you and your employer agree about why you exist. No problem there.

Why do you need a Mission Statement? Market positioning results from competitive forces, doesn’t it?

Yes it does. As it happens, you’re working in a highly competitive situation. Plenty of managers would love your job. Any number of technical services organizations would enjoy taking over what you do. And the company that employs you and spends money for your services wants an organization positioned in harmony with its goals and strategies.

Do you need a Vision – an explanation of how achieving your Mission will help transform your company and improve its standing in the market? Absolutely. Visions motivate. They help employees understand how they’ll make a difference. They also demonstrate your ability to lead, as opposed to just supervising work.. That will create confidence in you.

Why do so many Mission and Vision Statements fail? Three reasons.

First, for one reason or another, most end up being descriptive when they should be prescriptive. Your Mission and Vision shouldn’t legitimize everything you might ever want to do. They should inform everyone which, out of all activities you might undertake, you ought to actually engage in.

Second, most efforts focus on creating the documents. That’s just plain ridiculous. The ideas are what matter, not the phrasing. Employees may not agree with your approach, but they need to understand the direction you’ve chosen and agree to work within it.

Finally, far too many of us think of these efforts as projects, having a beginning (“Let’s write them.”), middle (“I think this word works better than that word.”) and end (“Here’s our Mission Statement. Carry it with you at all times. The team that wrote it did a fine job and I’m proud of them.”).

Don’t write a Mission Statement, print a bunch of posters, paste them around your organization, and breathe a sigh of relief (“Whew! I’m glad that’s finished.”) Don’t worry about the phrasing of the statement at all. Instead, hold discussions about your mission and vision frequently with the whole management team to make sure your direction still makes sense as circumstances change.

Encourage your managers and supervisors to use their understanding of your mission and vision to provide context in discussions with staff.

Understanding of your mission and vision has to become pervasive. With enough discussion the right words will come.

“Oh, &$@%#, not another &%^ing RFP!”
Requests for Proposal (RFPs) and runners have two shared characteristics. First, you see a lot of both of them. Second, nobody ever seems to actually enjoy either one. (To the runners I just offended: how come I never see you smiling?)
Clearly, we’ve become a nation of masochists.
But how else than an RFP to evaluate vendors and products? Form Follows Function. Your method of evaluation depends on the circumstances.
You generally face one of these three situations: (1) you fully understand your requirements and the market, and you need equivalent information from all suppliers; (2) you understand your business, have a general understanding that technology can improve it, and want open-ended suggestions on how different products can help improve or transform your organization; or (3) you need to choose a product from a well-defined category and need something that’s good enough. These situations call for different approaches.
When You Know Your Requirements
Here’s when you should write an RFP. Quite a few books (including my own Telecommunications for Every Business, Bonus Books, Chicago, 1992) provide detailed guidance. Three principles are worth mentioning here.
First, specify your design goals, not the means by which vendors should address them. For example, if you need a fault-tolerant database server, don’t say you need a system with redundant power supplies, backplanes, CPUs, and network interface cards. If you do you’ll get what you asked for (in this case, a system that frequently fails from software bugs). Instead, ask how the vendor ensures fault tolerance. Then you’ll learn one of the vendors provides mirrored servers with shared RAID storage for a lower overall cost and higher reliability.
Second, don’t withhold information. If you’re a Windows/95 shop, for example, don’t pretend to be open to other solutions. Just say so in your RFP. You’ll save both your vendors and yourself a lot of work.
And finally, if any vendor offers to “help you write your RFP” just laugh gently, compliment them on their sense of humor, and go onto the next vendor (who will make the same offer). Don’t take offense – they’re just doing their job. Don’t take them up on the offer, either.
Looking for Help
Sometimes, you don’t know all the questions. You know you want to phase out your nationwide SNA network, for example, but have an open mind regarding the best replacement strategy.
You can hire a consultant to help you write an RFP, I suppose … or, you can hold extensive conversations with a variety of vendors to learn what each has to offer. By doing so you’ll get a broader look at the market, and you’ll also get a wonderful education into the strengths (from each vendor) and weaknesses (from their competitors) of each approach currently selling.
In this example, you may find yourself talking to two frame relay vendors, a Transparent LAN Service provider, AT&T and Novell regarding their Netware Connect Services, and an independent systems integrator. You’ll benefit from an unstructured dialog in which each vendor can assess your situation in depth and describe a scenario of how their approach will work for your company.
When Good Enough Will Do
Let’s imagine you’ve been asked to select a new standard Ethernet network interface card (NIC). You could write an RFP or hold extensive conversations with sales reps, but why? Read a few reviews, ask a few basic questions, insist on a few evaluation units (to make sure they work and to learn about any installation glitches) and pick one. Flip a coin if you have to. It’s a low impact decision.
Oh yeah, just one more thing: very few of us make decisions based on logic. Salespeople know we make emotional decisions, then construct logical arguments to justify them. Don’t fall into this trap: recognize your emotional preference up front, figure out how much weight you should give it, and keep it from dominating your process.