“To satisfy our customers’ desires for personal entertainment and information through total customer satisfaction.”
Years ago, Seth Godin found and shared the above mission statement. Sure, it is as vague as they come. But, at least that one was bad enough to get noticed. Usually, the mission statements that I have to deal with are more like this:
“Collaborating with partners of government, community-based organizations, communities and the private sector, we provide a community engagement and dialogue clearinghouse:
- To provide capacity training and resources to build individual and collective skills and knowledge in small and large-scale engagement and dialogue processes.
- To facilitate customized community engagement and dialogue design and facilitation.
- To convene community engagement and dialogue processes.
- To collect and publish information and best practices of community engagement planning, strategic engagement, organizational renewal and public policy development.”
Actually, even this one is not that bad. Once, I had a client, who had a three-page-long mission statement. THREE-PAGE LONG! Apparently, somewhere, something went wrong. Let’s find out why mission statements usually suck.
Here is what most people don’t understand: A mission statement’s primary goal is to rally your troops. Sure, your mission statement communicates what you do and why you exist to your external stakeholders. But, keep in mind that it is mostly an internal alignment tool. It is written by “the senior management” for “the employees”.
Based on my experience (and I took part in many mission statement writing torture sessions) senior management is simply incapable of thinking like an employee. And that is OK, because this is a fundamental defect of human mind. When we communicate our ideas, we “assume” the receiver of the message knows as much as we do. In Made to Stick, Heath brothers explain this situation with an academic study.
During an experiment, one group was asked to pick a very well-known song and tap out the rhythm to a listener by knocking on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song. As expected the success rate was very low (2.5%). But that was not the main goal of the experiment. Before tapping, tappers were asked to predict the odds that the listener would guess correctly. The predicted odds were 50%!
Why is there such a discrepancy? It is because the tapper had the song playing in their minds and they failed to realize that the listener was clueless. For the tapper, the song was so obvious (they had it running in their minds). For the listener the song sounded like a Morse code. For the tapper, the listener was stupid because he/she could not guess the “obvious” song. For the listener, the tapper was a riddler. Now replace “the song” with “mission statement”, “the tapper” with “senior management” and “the listener” with “employee” and you see why most mission statements suck. How do we fix it?
I always tell my clients to strip the mission statement to its core and make it simple enough that everybody understands. Usually, senior managers think too deep. A front line employee does not have 30 years of experience in corporate governance. They don’t know much about international trade. That is why your mission statement has to be simple enough to be understood and remembered by everyone. Here is Google’s:
“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
Now, let's write a mission statement together...
First, make sure everybody clearly understands the definition of a mission statement: Tell your stakeholders this: “No company is built solely to make money. We are no exception. There is always something greater than that. We exist because we address certain human needs. And by satisfying those needs we hope to improve the world around us. That perfect future, is our vision. No company can build that future alone. Again, we are no exception. But we play a key role in shaping the perfect picture. And that role, is our mission.”
Second, forget “what you want to be”. Instead, focus your energy on “what you can become.” Define your role broadly yet realistically. Defining broadly will give you an audacious goal. Defining realistically will make sure that you stay on the right track.
Third, do not even consider writing your financial goals. Worst mission statements talk about ROI’s and financial targets. Keep in mind that the primary audience of your mission statement is your employees, who want to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.
Fourth, avoid clichés. The Mission Statement Book looks at the mission statement of 301 American companies. Service (230 times), customer (211), quality (194), value (183) and employees (157) are the most commonly used terms. Try to explain your mission by using authentic, memorable and motivating words.
Fifth, make sure your CEO is involved. Writing the mission statement is a task for the senior management, not marketing department.
And finally, hanging the statement on the wall is not enough. Run internal seminars and town halls to educate your troops. Make sure that your employees ask questions. That is a good indicator that they are willing to accept your mission statement.
Actionable tip 1: (This one is from Mary J. Braide - http://twitter.com/mjbraide/) People might have different understanding of a mission statement. Therefore, always write the description of the mission statement (Our role in building the perfect future) in front of your actual mission statement.
Actionable tip 2: When an organization hires me to write their mission statement, I position the statement as a litmus test and tell senior managers this: “Think of your mission statement as the ultimate criteria that your frontline employees use as the benchmark for all of their behaviours.”
Why don’t you give me some examples of mission statements that you like?