Mission Statements: Their cause and cure (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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“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.

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