December 6, 2014 Leave a comment
Do organizations still revisit their mission statements as often as they used to? It doesn’t seem that way to me.
Were mission statements somehow downsized during our last recession? Perhaps business leaders increasingly saw talking about them as unproductive dalliance. Or maybe doing so just became corporately uncool for some other reason. Any of these explanations would do fine by me, but it can’t be that simple. Can it?
Frustrations & Qualifications
Some of the most frustrating experiences I have endured in life have occurred during mission statement discussions. These discussions occurred in a variety of organization settings. Large and small, for-profit and non-profit, it didn’t seem to matter. It seemed that no organization with which I was associated could resist the temptation to revisit its reason for being. With calendars blocked, the offsites were scheduled. Consultants were hired, and off we went…sometimes literally into the wilderness or out into those wide open spaces.
Then it seemed to stop. At least for me, it did. Probably a career-saving kind of thing, as I ponder this welcome and productive development…savoring the moment for just a second or two.
So you can clearly see by now that I feel as if I have studied a lifetime in order to amass what it takes to respectfully address this vaunted topic. I have received passing grades at undergrad and graduate levels in the requisite subject matter. I have been trained by the masters and facilitated by the experts. I have participated in mission statement discussions at just about every possible corporate level and also in non-profits as a volunteer. One might go so far as to say that I have been repeatedly summoned to the mission to worship at its altar.
When We Need ‘Em Most
Picture yourself sitting in a room of smart talented individuals with a big pile of money on the table. Further envision that no one really knows for sure where the money came from or what it’s for. However, everyone in the room sees the seed money as some sort of a divine calling of capitalist intervention.
“What should we do with the money?” “Let’s invest it and the plow the dividends back in nanomaterial futures.” “No, we really should make a product.” “OK, I hear you, but how ’bout a service instead?” Energy and ideas fill the room. All that remains is to narrow the field, select a winner, and then write it down in as few words as possible in the form of a mission statement. Destination nirvana, utopia or some other similar realm of free enterprise!
(Note – it’s often the selection and placement of such key words such as “a”, “an” and “the” that takes the most time in mission statement discussions. You may also it find it useful to know that “in a way that”, “in order to” and “so that” are key linking phrases with which to show your mastery of mission.)
While a completely blank slate like the one above rarely becomes our reality, most would agree that such a case is definitely worthy of some good old-fashioned mission statement discussion. In fact, let’s go ahead and admit it right here. It sounds like a lot of fun and would be a great problem to have!
Slightly further along our continuum of reality exists a collection of considerably more believable situations where necessity becomes the impetus for mission statement tweaks. When faced with market, regulatory, or technological disruptors, validating “what it is we that we do, why we do it, and for whom we do it” seems to make good sense as a necessary first step to articulating new identity aspirations and/or changes in direction.
Likewise, significant shifts in ownership, funding, or both should set even the most mission statement discussion-adverse folks like me running toward our multi-colored marker sets, flipcharts and powerpoints.
When We Need ‘Em Not So Much
However most mission statement discussions lack this degree of necessity. In fact, many that I have seen proved to be completely unnecessary exercises that simply reaffirmed the obvious or were in the end very ineffectual discussions at best. At their worst, they were confusing, dividing, and borderline absurd. I have even seen people cry at these things. I guess discussing the obvious can become hugely emotional for some.
Despite the consumption of expensive resources, an annual reaffirmation of the current mission can make a few top people feel good about current direction and leadership. Obviously this would justify the cost. In one company, this ritual of inconsequential discussion featured idyllic, disconnected, and delusional generation of alternatives while the key issues that would ultimately cause the company significant pain remained off-limits and out of focus. Rome was burning, or at least the fire-starting sparks were assembling while we endlessly and inanely debated the unimportant.
So, it seems to me that having a good sense of corporate self-identity goes a long way to keeping the lines and arrows aligned along the right path. Organizations who do not understand their own DNA are likely to spend more time discussing it. A well run company has a way of letting its own results clarify its mission without wasting a whole lot of time and resources on defining it. I happen to work for one of these companies. We know what we do, why we do it, and for whom we do it. Mission accomplished!