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Tips for Creating Mission Statements

Mission Statements

Purpose, Vision, Mission, and Value Proposition statements are all important to focus an organization for employees, customers, and investors.

Purpose, Vision, Mission, and Value Proposition statements are all important to focus an organization for employees, customers, and investors.

Purpose and Mission statements can be powerful tools for achieving motivated, creative, empowered employees.

This page makes a distinction between both purpose and mission statements and provides you guidance for constructing them.  Sounds easy.  It’s tough to do well, but worth the effort.  A galvanizing mission can be of immense value.

What is a Mission Statement?  (from James Collins and Jerry Porras)

A true mission is a clear and compelling goal that focuses people’s efforts.  It is tangible, specific, crisp, clear and engaging.  It reaches out and grabs people in the gut.  Example:

“This nation should dedicate itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

Like the moon flight, a good mission has a clear finish line — you should be able to tell when you’ve done it — at which point, you need to create a new mission.  “We’re going to climb Mount Everest” is a mission; the more general, “We’re going to climb the Himalayas” is not.

And, like the moon flight, a good mission is risky, falling in a gray zone where reason says, “This is unreasonable”; and your intuition and drive say, “But we believe we can do it anyway.”

Good Mission Statements are very powerful and motivating.  There are abundant jokes about MBAs and bad mission statements.  Don’t be swayed!

Good Mission Statements don’t need wordsmithing — people “get it”, no matter how you say it.

In summary, a mission is

  • “What we are here to do”
  • A clear and compelling goal that serves to unify an organization’s efforts
  • Crisp, clear, engaging, verging on unreasonable

Several approaches can be useful to defining a mission:

  • Targeting: set a clear, definable target and aim for it (e.g. NASA moon mission)
  • Common Enemy: create a goal focused on defeating a common enemy (e.g. Pepsi: “Beat Coke!”)
  • Role Model: select a well-known success and emulate it (e.g. Giro Sport Design: “to be to the cycling industry what Nike is to athletic shoes and Apple is to computers”)

Some people apply the label “Mission Statement” to a Purpose Statement but that loses the opportunity to clarify a short-term objective.  I like the military connotation.  It’s a clear, definable and motivational point of focus.  It’s an achievable goal, a clear finish line to work towards, the next short-term milestone, the next “hill to take”.

That’s what has worked best for me, but here’s my advice: Don’t get hung up on competing alternative definitions for Purpose and Mission statements, or even Purpose and Vision statements!  Choose whatever moves your organization forward and go with it!

Getting a team in alignment is a very powerful thing.  Consciously and unconsciously, people are making decisions all day long.  It is human nature that people want to do the right thing.  A clear mission statement empowers people to set the correct priorities and make the correct decisions.

What is a Purpose Statement?  (from James Collins and Jerry Porras)

Purpose is the fundamental set of reasons for the organization’ existence — in the broadest, most enduring sense what people in the organization want to contribute to the external world.  In an ongoing organization, such as a corporation or an educational institution, purpose is continually pursued, but never fully achieved.  It is not a specific objective that you accomplish and then say, “We are done.”  Effective purpose is broad and inspirational, something that strikes a basic chord and provides a clear sense of direction for the organization and its members.

In the case of the space program, Kennedy’s purpose was not to put a human being on the moon by the end of the decade (again, this was a mission).  Rather, it was to work toward making the United States the greatest and most respected nation in the world, and Kennedy viewed a manned moon landing as a necessary step in that direction.

If you ask your management team to define your company’s purpose and they say something like: “We exist to maximize shareholder wealth.”  Tell them that’s not good enough.  It does not inspire anyone and provides precious little guidance!

Instead, say authors Collins and Porras, ask these questions:  “If you woke up tomorrow morning with enough money in the bank to retire, what is it about this company that would make you want to continue working here?  What deeper sense of purpose would motivate you to continue to dedicate your precious creative energies to this company’s efforts?  As a helpful exercise they suggest that you start with a descriptive statement.  “We make X products.” or “We deliver X services,” and then ask, “Why is that important?”  Ask it five times.  After a few whys, you’ll find that you’re getting down to the fundamental purpose of your organization.  You will start to articulate the very soul of your organization.

Here’s a look at some core purpose statements for some successful companies.* Notice, none of them say: To maximize shareholder value!

3M:  To solve unsolved problems innovatively.
Fannie Mae: To strengthen the social fabric by continually democratizing home ownership.
Hewlett-Packard: To make technical contributions for the advancement and welfare of humanity.
Mary Kay Cosmetics: To give unlimited opportunity to women.
Merck: To preserve and improve human life.
Nike: To experience the emotion of competition, winning and crushing competitors.
Wal-Mart: To give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people.

In summary, a purpose is

  • “Why we exist”
  • Should be succinct; 1 or 2 sentences at most
  • Should quickly and clearly convey how the organization fills basic human needs
  • Should be simple enough to pass the grandmother test:  if you can explain it to her so she can understand it, then maybe you’re on to something
  • Should tie products/services to a more fundamental need, rather than simply mentioning the products/services
  • Should be broad, inspirational, enduring, compelling and flexible enough to last 100 years
  • Only needs to be meaningful and inspirational to people inside the organization; it need not be exciting to all outsiders
  • Purpose is a motivating factor, not a differentiating factor

Putting it all together:

A compelling Vision and Mission can be translated into Goals which are realized through Strategies implemented as Initiatives to generate Results.

Resources:

In Pursuit of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal”, James C. Collins, www.jimcollins.com

“Purpose, Mission, Vision”, James C. Collins and Jerry Porras, Stanford Business School Magazine, July 1989

“Building Your Company’s Vision,” by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1996

Built To Last by James Collins

The Mission Statement Book by Jeffrey Abrahams

The Mission Primer: Four Steps to an Effective Mission Statement by Richard O’Hallaron and David O’Hallaron