Thursday, November 20, 2008

The (Terribly Misused) Mission Statement

Have you ever read a truly motivating mission statement?

OK, maybe that is not fair. Have you ever read mission statement that did not put you to sleep? (Be objective -- everyone thinks their mission statement is motivating and looks really good bronzed in their lobby on that nice little plaque to the left of the receptionist.)

Unfortunately, what started out as a great idea (“Hey, let’s clarify our organizational purpose, specify who we really serve and how we do it in a paragraph or two.”) has turned out to be a terribly homogenized marketing tactic instead of the strategic process originally intended. Try to find a mission statement that does not contain the words “highest quality,” “superior service” or “best value” in it. If it has all three, it probably says “blah, blah, blah,” too.

In the mid-1980s, many corporations were taking a closer look at their businesses to determine whether they were allocating their resources in the best ways possible. As part of this, organizations explored the development of mission statements to help them stay focused on their core business and the markets they served. As originally conceptualized, the mission statement was a succinct version of the company’s business plan. Of critical importance was that once management developed this internal tool, it would be presented and discussed with every employee to help keep everyone in the organization on the same page.

Unfortunately, many organizations have gotten it in their heads that a mission statement is an external (read Marketing) tool. They want to show it to all their customers and get them nodding in agreement. And this is a terrible misuse of this valuable tool. Why? If organizations think their mission statement will be shown to their customers, there is a tendency to take all the “meaty” stuff out that might be perceived as controversial to important customers.

There is nothing wrong with showing your mission statement to your customers, just don’t let the tail wag the dog.

Now if the mission statement is a “succinct business plan,” does it not stand to reason that mission statements should begin to reflect what an organization is really trying to do?

A good business plan ensures that the company does not try to be all things to all customers. Jack Trout and Al Ries in their book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, discuss the importance of the Law of Sacrifice. This “law” says that to focus their resources, companies need to consider reducing either their product line or their target market. Now there is some “meaty” thinking for you.

Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema gave similar advice in their best seller, The Discipline of Market Leaders. Treacy and Wiersema advocate companies strictly adhere to a single “value discipline” – Best Product/Service, Lowest Cost or Total Solution provider – and then concentrate on delivering one of these values to their customers.

So what’s to be done about all these terribly boring mission statements? First of all, take them out of your lobby. As written, most of them won’t impress anyone anyway. Then, get your senior management together and, using your business plan as a foundation, hammer out a paragraph or two that tells everyone in your organization what you are trying to do, who you serve and how you really are different from the other guys. Quit worrying about who this statement might turn off and start thinking about whom it might motivate (your employees) when they read it.

Only when you have developed a motivating statement that clarifies your purpose as an organization for your employees, can you consider bronzing it on a plaque for your lobby. There is nothing wrong with showing your mission statement to your customers, just don’t let the tail wag the dog.

And, if that bronzed plaque inspires your receptionist as she greets potential customers, it would have served its original purpose quite well.

[This article first appeared in GSA Business. Photo used under the Creative Commons License courtesy of Flickr.]

No comments:

Post a Comment