Overcomplicated mission statements miss the chance to make a statement

Given a choice between serving on the committee to write your company’s mission statement or a trip to the dentist, which would you choose?

If you’ve been involved in such an effort before, you may not consider the difference all that great. For those who haven’t, here’s how these things can often go:

  1. Assemble a large group of stakeholders in a room
  2. Encourage each to whiteboard all the key terms (aka, buzzwords du jour) they want to insure are included
  3. Stand back and let groupthink do its thing

Unfortunately, the desired outcome ends up shifting from defining a great mission statement to defining agreement among the parties on the committee. The result is a four-sentence word swamp meaning absolutely nothing to anyone outside of that room.

In other words, something like the following, once used (as the intro to a much longer statement, believe it or not) by a large grocery chain:

Guided by relentless focus on our five imperatives, we will constantly strive to implement the critical initiatives required to achieve our vision. In doing this, we will deliver operational excellence in every corner of the company and meet or exceed our commitments to the many constituencies we serve. All of our long-term strategies and short-term actions will be molded by a set of core values that are shared by each and every associate.

“Constantly strive to implement the critical initiatives to achieve our vision.” Really gets the blood pumping, doesn’t it?

Mission statements may be the most needlessly overcomplicated, overthought and overwrought things in the business world. Which is truly a shame, because mission statements can deliver more good in less space than almost any other action you can take.

A mission statement presents a vision of the company to the world, but what we’re concerned with here is the vision they present to the employees. From their point of view, the statement should serve as the North Star for the meaning and purpose required to get them out of bed and into the office each day. Whenever things get out of whack—whenever employees lose focus on why they spend 40 hours a week in this place—a clear and succinct mission statement is the permanent touchstone that brings them back online.

Do, not make. Here are a few well-known examples of mission statements that leave no doubt, for customer or employee or prospective employee, what the company is supposed to be all about:

  • Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful (Google)
  • Re-imagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world (Etsy)
  • Transforming everyday purchases into a force for good around the world. One for One (Toms)
  • Connect people through lending to alleviate poverty (Kiva)
  • Create happiness by providing the best in entertainment for people of all ages everywhere (Disney theme parks)
  • To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time (Starbucks)
  • Deliver WOW through service (Zappos)

(OK, the Starbucks one may be a little ambitious for a place that sells $5.25 hazelnut mocha coconut milk macchiatos, but you can’t argue with success.)

Mentioning the actual product is optional. The question to be answered is not what we make here, but what we do here. And to really illustrate the wisdom of keeping it simple, imagine what a boondoggle of incomprehension Google might have produced, had it decided to go the constantly strive to implement route.

Everything you do counts. To have meaning at work, there must be a purpose in the work that inspires. (Note that a purpose is not an outcome.) This has to be true from the CEO on down to the very last employee on the org chart. Everyone drawing a wage must understand his or her particular role in achieving success. In that context, let’s take a further look at the Disney statement.

When you go to a Disney theme park, you can’t miss the sweepers—the people swarming around like bees, nabbing stray hot dog wrappers before they even reach the ground. To the extent you think about it at all, it’s not likely you’d find this to be the most glamorous job in the world, even for teenagers; low-skilled, low-pay, manual labor. Nobody’s winning any Nobel Prizes for rinsing melted ice cream from asphalt.

But considering it from the perspective of the Disney mission statement provides an entirely different view. The theme park experience is about families—especially children—having fun. Having tremendous fun, on vacation, being entertained in a fantasy kingdom. Fantasy kingdoms have a lot of things in them, but you know one thing they don’t have? They don’t have a lot of trash all over the ground. Paths strewn with chewing gum and discarded Fastpasses definitely detract from the magical experience.

So even the most menial of tasks contributes to the mission of creating happiness. Minor in the great scheme of things, it’s nonetheless something the sweepers can take pride in. In their own small way, they’re helping families have fun on their vacations. That’s a purpose that inspires, and that’s what a good mission statement is shooting for.

When professional athletes develop bad habits, they return to fundamentals, searching for the spot where they departed from the ideal technique. When your employees have similarly lost sight of the big picture, make sure your mission statement is the place they can always go to get it back.