Failing mission statements and why so…


Mission statements abound and are plentiful, and I think rightfully so. A mission statement is part of providing that looked for sense of mission, show of direction to the organization and all that. The question is: when you made mission statement how do you know whether it is any good? The happy news is that there are many tools available to help you out. A tool like this may take you through a number of questions and checklists and at the end you typically get a number which indicates how good your statement is. Done! … or done? I think it is the question mark option because…

A perfect mission statement won’t do… only a great one works.

Here is why…

I read many statements and reading  about them I get the impression that the use of mission statements is suffering. “… have you also read this page long piece and felt…mwahhh…”, “… you should not use a mission statement but get a mantra… it must be short…” and so forth. The question I have with this is: how right are the critics? I think they are not at all right in the sense that I think that most of these mission statements are of the ‘done-exclamation-mark’ type.

For the strategy game we are developing at Changing Games we also look at mission statements. In our case we provide the players their mission based on one of the proclamations of Napoleon Bonaparte. These were distributed to be read out loud before a group. Proclamations? Speeches? You tell me. Yes proclamations, because when we looked at them we quickly saw that in fact they are what we today would call mission statements. The more I looked at it the more I realized that a mission statement can be looked at like being a speech. With your mission statement you aim to touch people, to move people, not just inform them, like with a speech.

There a many speeches out there. There are very good speeches, there are even perfect speeches but there are only a few great speeches. The difference between perfect and great is like the difference between missing and hitting a nail on its head with a perfectly good hammer.

Take for example Martin Luther King with his I have a dream speech. This is a great speech because it touched on a subject that was important to his audience. Not because he wanted this to be important for his audience. Right as he may have been the speech wouldn’t have been great in case his audience felt it wasn’t important to them.

Now just assume that his speech was about how he dreamt of baking the perfect apple-pie. Exactly the same words just about baking an apple-pie. This would still be a perfect speech following all the rules of contrast, a call to action, etc… But would it be a great speech? I think many will agree that the answer to this question is: no!

And that is the problem I think with many mission statements. Most seem to be about what top management wants to be important to the organization, right as they may be, rather than what is important to the people. These mission statements are perfectly good hammers, scoring high on the good-quality-mission-statement-indexes, and still they will almost always fail to hit the nail on its head. They are about backing the perfect apple-pie rather than their organization. When an audience doesn’t feel, really feel, and deeply feel, it is about them, they won’t move.

Jan-Willem Boots is co-founder of Changing Games

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