Undermining the Mission of Mission Statements

As a youngster, I was not a strong student. My parents, God love them, tried motivating me to apply myself more, with inspired talk of how junior high is a stepping stone to a bright future as a doctor or investment banker; but I wasn’t buying it. Getting A’s just wasn’t that important to me…but skiing was. So when my parents told me that for every A I got, they would contribute $25 towards a season’s pass at the local ski hill, I changed my tune and my behaviour. I now had something real to work towards, something that was meaningful to me personally. I now had a mission and – when my mom wrote out “I will earn a season’s pass to Boston Mills and ski as much as humanly possible” on a piece of paper and stuck it to my door – my first mission statement. I got my A’s and my pass.

Mission statements are one of those traditional trappings of strategic planning. They can be powerful things that focus, align and inspire a workforce to come together to reach a common goal. However, despite their best intentions, many mission statements fall tragically flat. In a recent HBR blog post, Dan Pallotta said that a lot of mission statements fail because there’s no real sense of mission fueling them. I completely concur and offered up three additional scenarios to Dan that often undermine the very mission that mission statements are looking to fulfill.

1) Collective Composition

Far too many strategic planning sessions with top executives are allowed to turn into glorified, vocabulary mosh pits as a group of non-writers try to write together. They agonize over every word, resulting in mission statements that lack magic and are filled with clichés. (“Oh! Let’s get ‘Integrity’ in there. That’s a great word!”) This collective brainpower should be focused more on ideas, vision and the differences they want to make in the world, less on words. Leave the actual writing to writers; they’ll make it sing.

2) Non-human Language

Mission statements are too often written for some plaque on a wall or annual report, not for the hearts and minds of the people who are expected to carry out the mission. They are rarely written in a way people actually talk. So if your employees aren’t talking about your mission statement, they’re likely not thinking about it…and certainly not acting on it.

3) No Vision for the Mission

If you develop a mission statement, make certain it goes hand in hand with a vision statement. Your vision statement conveys the world as you see it…or more specifically, as you want to see it. Your mission statement then captures what you vow to collectively take on to realize that vision. People need to know what they’re working towards, not just what they’re working on.

If you need to develop a mission statement, then give it a chance to actually carry out its mission and make it something that will resonate with your troops. That’s more than half the battle.

TagsCorporate Languageemployee engagementMission StatementsStrategic Planningstrategic storytellingVision Statements

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