Is Your Mission Statement Written by Dilbert
By George Smart
There’s no more painful corporate ritual than the every-few-years mission statement revision. Here’s where a group of well-meaning people gather for several meetings, markers in hand, to torturously wordsmith themselves into agreement.
Each group will emerge tired and frustrated but proclaiming, like Moses from the mountaintop, to possess words and phrases that will make pulses quicken, checkbooks open, and customers wanting to buy more. They herald these miraculous phrases as the Ginsu knives of the English language, multifunctional to the last, with claims to motivate employees, attract customers, frighten competitors, and bolster the industry. They are likely to have a gold-framed, company-president-signed version up in their office. These words are not just for the high priests, however. They will also be emblazoned on coffee cups, key chains, t-shirts, brochures, websites, and Post-It notes.
Does this mission statement typically fire up everyone? Does it fire up anyone? The employees take the t-shirts home to their kids. The gold frames will be filed, roundly. There is no pulse-quickening. Instead, employees, customers, suppliers – everyone except execs and the authors themselves -- see the mission statement as vague, irrelevant, and disconnected from real work. The corporate Ginsu won’t even cut a tomato.
Why? Because companies usually write what is basically nice-sounding ad copy. This is fine for a brochure or trade show, but as a focal point for company change, such statements are real yawners. Most simply randomly re-arrange positive-sounding words. In fact, http://www.dilbert.com/comics/dilbert/games/career/bin/ms.cgi has a Mission Statement Generator that spits them out as well as any committee.
Here’s a quick test. Some of the following are from the Dilbert site and some are from real companies. Which ones are real?
1. We strive to continually facilitate performance-based leadership skills to exceed customer expectations.
2. It is our job to enthusiastically coordinate ethical solutions to allow us to dramatically utilize quality materials while promoting personal employee growth.
3. We will meet the needs of our clients with uncompromising focus on quality and completion.
4. The customer can count on us to continually fashion economically sound paradigms so that we may endeavor to enthusiastically engineer cutting edge infrastructures.
5. Our mission is to develop cost-effective solutions that will meet the unique present and future requirements of our clients.
6. Our mission is to provide high quality professional services to every client.
7. Create an environment in which satisfied customers, quality products, and bottom line profits go hand in hand.
Answer: It doesn’t matter, because all are meaningless generic expressions -- describing ideals instead of specifics.
So how can you fix this for your firm which probably has verbage like the above on a coffee cup somewhere?
Good mission statements provide relevant focus and clarity so people can make insightful decisions. The key is to capture examples so people come to a generality on their own. Taken straight from raising kids, we all know that “don’t hit your brother” tends to stop misbehavior more than “be nice to your brother.” Similarly, specific missions tend to move people more reliably to right actions.
Missions are big time-bounded tasks that describe outcomes. Don’t feel pressured to write just one. It is perfectly acceptable to have several in place at once – there is no need to collapse everything into one sentence. Three to five well-crafted mission statements allow easier alignment with a company’s planning and implementing, budgets and headcount.
An effective mission tells of a specific result. To do this, think big goals. And as any MBA will tell you, goals have to be SMART: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bounded. One good mission statement formula is:
Action on A from B to C by T, for example:
1. Close on our first $10M engineering project (up from $5M) by the end of 2007.
2. Increase $750,000 more commissions next quarter to send ten people to Harvard’s executive program in March.
3. Get hired by 10 of the Fortune 100, up from two now, by the end of next year.
There are some political drawbacks to this method. Being specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bounded from the beginning instills accountability. Some company cultures tend to suppress accountability. Instead of being motivated, people are afraid to agree to specific goals from fear of reprisal if the goals are not met. Some companies prefer vague, nice-sounding missions so they can declare “mission accomplished” at any time and no one can call them on it. If either of these situations describes your firm, use this method more departmentally, even down to the team level. It’s not bad for individual planning, either.
The next time some one puts a marker in your hand and sends you into a room lined with flip charts, take this article with you. Give people a clear, specific, meaningful, relevant mission and they won’t get lost. Save the nice-sounding ad copy for your marketing department!