Why Mission Statements Fall Short

Blogger’s Note: Column previously published in James Magazine

Someone needs to tell Alpharetta-based ChoicePoint that it’s time for a new mission statement.

“To be the most admired information company worldwide” rings hollow considering their current challenges with identity theft. At least they didn’t use “trusted” in place of ‘admired.’

Ok, sorry. Rather than beat up on an obvious suspect, consider a few reasons why mission statements nearly always fall short.

The first reason is broken process. Here’s how it generally works. A company CEO gets fed up with morale being “in the tank” and decides it’s time to rev up the troops. So he or she calls in a subordinate and/or outside consultant and instructs them to develop a statement that says what the company aspires to be, i.e., its vision, and how the company will achieve that vision, i.e., mission. Not much thought is given to what an intended audience may think or feel.

If those tasked with the challenge are true professionals, they’ll conduct some level of research via surveys, focus groups and/or employee interviews to gauge sentiment. Then they’ll pore over findings to decipher what will resonate. They may even test a few terms with a small control group to see what connects at a personal level.

This is where the process generally starts breaking down. Instead of thinking broadly, the mission team rushes to produce a few blanket statements solely for high-level review. Everyone proceeds to wordsmith the potential statements to death. Then, presto, there’s a mission. CEO says, “Put it on the web, send the email out and tell everyone we’ve got a mission! Project managers pat themselves on the back and sit back waiting for the mission to take hold.

The only problem is it never does, and the reasons why are never obvious.

When Lou Gerstner took over as IBM’s CEO in 1993, one of his first memorable lines was, “the last thing we need here is another vision.” What Gerstner found isn’t uncommon. The organization was literally awash in too much process and disparate agendas. They had lost track with what they were and had no idea what they were going to be.

Instead of crafting another mission statement, Gerstner led an effort to find specific focus. The company coined the term, “e-commerce” after months of review and team-based vetting. While this move was one of many, the end result was momentum behind one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in history.

Obviously most companies can’t buy their way into a new arena like IBM did. But that’s not the point. IBM took the time to find focus around what they were and weren’t vs. what they were trying to become. And they used simple, timely terminology that conveyed something unique about where the business was headed.

Others make the mistake of arriving at generic statements that severely lack differentiation. Law and accounting firms are notorious for this wrong-headed practice. “To be the biggest law firm in the world” can be found all too often. While a noble goal, is there anything truly unique about that line? Take the word, ‘law’ out, and it could be any firm in the world.

McKinsey & Co., one of the world’s most recognized business strategy consulting firms, originally focused on the “best and the brightest.” What began as a mission is now a steadfast principle. Despite recent stumbles, McKinsey has managed to weather the storm by remaining true to their original calling.

Boeing, another company in the news for stumbling recently, re-defines generic with, “People Working Together as a Global Enterprise for Aerospace Leadership.” Again, drop the word, “aerospace” and the description could fit nearly any company with worldwide presence.

So what does this mean to you and your company?

Effective mission statements can be a struggle. Most efforts fall short. But it’s not usually because of technical reasons.

Actions behind statements end up speaking much more loudly than words. If anyone influential during the initial stage says things like, “c’mon, it’s just a mission statement — no one really cares,” then don’t bother with the exercise.

However, if a need exists to connect disparate groups and agreement can be reached on how to be specific, unique and energized, then try crafting a statement. Just make sure that the mission communicates unique benefits and relevance to customer, employees and other important constituencies. Then live by the words over time. Update only when absolutely necessary.

The power of many experiencing what you stand for can ultimately create immense value.