We have all been told countless times that a “mission statement” is critical to the success of an organization. I am sure you have heard that “if you don’t know where you are going, any direction will do.”  However, the evidence and research shows that many successful companies do not have either a business plan or a mission statement.  How many times have you seen a mission statement that said “We want to be the best” or “We highly value our employees”? We tend to just take these for granted. They are generic and vanilla statements and most employees simply ignore them. In fact, in even the best companies, the mission statement (if it exists) is virtually unknown by most employees if not most of management.  I have visited dozens of companies wherein most of management could not begin to tell you what their mission or vision is for their organization.

In my seminars on strategic planning, I have conducted numerous debates between proponents of mission statements and opponents.  The score is somewhat tied at about 50-50.  Often the judges select the arguments of the proponents but equally as often the opponents win the debate.  Why?  How can so much wisdom exhorting the power of a mission statement be wrong?  When one adds the time to develop such statements in planning workshops usually attended by senior executives, there seems even less justification for spending precious hours and resources on these statements. My partner and I have developed a more balanced view of the value of such statements and when and how they should be developed and deployed.  

Let’s look at three possibilities. 1.) The mission statement is in the head of the founder.  2.) The mission statement is boring and unmemorable.  3.) The mission statement is inspiring and motivating. 

In the first case, you probably do not need a mission statement as long as the founder or leader is at the helm of the organization.  However, what if every employee also had a “personal” mission statement for their role in the organization?  What if their mission statement aligned with the founders’ mission statement?  Every employee coming to work each day would have a purpose linked to the overall purpose of the organization but inspired by their own goals and related to what they personally wanted to accomplish. Would you mind having a workforce filled with such people. Then why keep the founders statement or vision a secret? Why not expand the entire concept of creating a vision to a vision and mission for each employee in the organization?

The mission statement is boring and unmemorable.  This second situation applies to about 80 percent of the missions that I have seen.  Cookie cutter statements are not going to inspire anyone.  Worse, they fail to provide any strategic direction.  What is missing in these statements is imagination.  Think of the imagination that inspired the Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, the IPOD, the Moon Landing, and Facebook. I am not talking about “Pie in the Sky” type thinking and planning.  I am talking about words, visions and missions that inspire and excite us.  Adventures and goals that take us out of our mundane everyday lives and help make us part of something bigger than ourselves. We all want to be part of something great, something memorable. Whether it is simply by supporting our sports team, developing a new innovative product or joining the church choir, we need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. However, we must believe that this “bigger’ thing is doing somewhere exciting or has the potential to be a winner. It has to be bigger than we are.  It has to embody deep seated hopes and dreams that are inherent in every human being. As Kelly Cutrone , the writer and fashion publicist has said in her new book:  “Normal Gets You Nowhere.”  Normal is average.  Average is middle of the road.  Do you aspire to be an average company with average employees?  If so, you will probably not survive long in today’s marketplace.

The third possibility is what we want to create.  A mission statement that is inspiring, memorable and actionable.  We want a mission statement that will embody the hopes and dreams of the founder and the employees that are hired by the organization.  Consider some of the following statements:

  • Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
  • I believe this nation should commit itself, to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
  • Henry Ford’s mission was “A simple, inexpensive vehicle affordable by ALL!”
  • Wal-Mart “To give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people.”
  • Mary Kay Cosmetics “To give unlimited opportunity to women.”
  • 3M “To solve unsolved problems innovatively”

Each of these statements is inspiring and memorable.  But even better, each of these statements invites you to take part in some endeavor that is clearly exciting and worthwhile.  However, before you start to think about developing or changing your organizations mission statement you need to ask yourself a few questions. 

  • Are you inspired by your company mission or vision? Why not?
  • What would it take for you to be more inspired?
  • Would putting time and energy into developing an inspiring mission statement help you and your employees have more energy and focus? Why or why not?
  • Do you self-inspire? Do you have your own personal vision and mission? Why not?
  • Do you have the imagination to create a great mission statement for your organization? 

Too many organizations have a myth of innovation and creativity when in reality they have become moribund and bureaucratic.  They lack the ability to think out of the box, because the entire organization structure is one great matrix of boxes and chimneys and silos.  From the day an employee is hired, they are put into a box by their job description, their title, their department and the policies and procedures that govern everyday organization life in their company.  Is it any wonder that when a mission statement is created, it is lackluster and vanilla? It is difficult if not impossible to be creative and imaginative and think out of a box when your entire daily existence is to be part of and fit into one large box. Thus, many organizations need help to be creative and imaginative.  Asking the typical manager or employee to create an innovative and inspiring mission statement is like asking the fox to take good care of the hen house.  “It ain’t a gonna happen.”   

Sorry to be negative here.  But let’s face reality. Why are so many mission statements either forgettable or useless?  Dr. Deming noted that “Change comes from outside by invitation only.”  I have always assumed that this meant you need to have help from someone who is not part of the system or someone who can view the situation without any inherent biases.  Call them a counselor, consultant, advisor or coach; we all need someone who is more objective than we can be when trying to change. 

Well, you have some tips and ideas here.  If you were expecting a formula for a great mission statement, I are sorry.  There is no such formula.  A great mission statement comes from passion, imagination, focus and to some extent failure and experimentation.  It is an iterative process. My partner and I use the PDCA cycle as a means of summarizing this. P is for Play.  D is for Design.  C is for Create and A is for Activate.  It is a cycle that is never ending and always being refined and improved.  Apply this cycle to your mission statement and see where it takes you