Mission: Unintelligible

I’d like to see more organizations put as much work into implementing their mission statements as they do in drafting them.

I’ve seen far too many of the other kind. The management team appoints a committee that spends several months (six seems to be a common duration) agonizing over each word in a sentence to capture what the company wants to be about. Then they go back to the same way of doing business, either forgetting or failing to implement the meaning behind the message.

Mission statements, vision maps, shared goals, value statements and all their frame-worthy cousins fascinate me, though I confess it’s in a cynical way. Everyone has them, but I’m not sure why. I suspect it’s because some bestselling gurus present them as indispensable. One of them writes a new book extolling the importance of something like a “cross-departmental value composite,” and the next thing you know, CEOs across the country are clamoring for composites of their own. Do they really need them? They must, if someone has written about them.

I’ve probably offended a few people with that statement, so I’ll grant that it’s important to define the central beliefs and goals of a company. No argument. But why then are so many of them so amazingly bad? In years of reading mission statements and the like, I’ve been able to identify several common categories, including these:

Mission: Interchangeable. Let’s make that statement as vague as possible. Maybe something like, “Amalgamated Industries is committed to excellence, dedicated to quality, and focused on customer satisfaction.” Says a lot, right? Of course, you could just as easily put your chief competitor’s name in there. Or the gas station just down the street. If your statement is vague enough to work for everyone, it really won’t do much for anyone.

Mission: Unattainable. I’ve worked for bosses who really believed that old saw about being realistic by demanding the impossible. While setting impossible goals may motivate the team in the kick-off meeting, it will wear them down over time as they begin to see themselves as failures. That makes this kind of statement counterproductive.

“By focusing on things that really aren’t a challenge or of any importance, they become little more than an exercise in wordplay.”

Mission: Insubstantial. In a way, this type of statement is the polar opposite of the Unattainable version. By focusing on things that really aren’t a challenge or of any importance, they become little more than an exercise in wordplay.

Mission: Incompatible. These are the kind of statements that turn employees into cynics. One I’ve seen frequently is the organization that makes claims about their employees being their most important assets just before they decide to divest themselves of those assets in the name of short-term profits.

Mission: Insufferable. This category takes in statements written around the latest buzzwords. The statements become increasingly trite as the business world moves on to its next buzzword. “Partnering” and “adding value” have been there for a long time, and “passion” is quickly headed in the same direction.

Mission: Incomprehensible. How do companies expect their employees to embrace a mission statement that nobody can understand?

Mission: Intellectual. The committee members all have great vocabularies and want to demonstrate that so everyone will be impressed. Sadly, nobody else really knows what those words mean – and when people don’t know a word, they’ll usually give it their own definition.

Mission: Uncomfortable. This is what occurs when the committee members think they have great vocabularies, but really don’t. They choose words based on what they think they mean, but that actually convey an entirely different message to the outside world (watch those double meanings – words like “passion” and “desire” lead to snickers when used incorrectly).

Mission: Inscrutable. I’ve read the mission statement six times, and while I’m convinced that it contains something of value, it’s worded so strangely that I just can’t figure out what it might be.

Mission: Irritable. Obviously, there has been some kind of shortcoming within the company, and management knows that the best way to fix it is with an angry-sounding mission statement. You like to do business with angry people, don’t you?

Mission: Unaccountable. It’s often said that what gets measured gets done. Logically, the corollary of that is that something that can’t be measured really can’t be accomplished. If your goals, vision, and whatever else you want to call them are vague and unclear, how will you know whether you’ve been successful?

Mission: Incomparable. That’s a category reserved for a small percentage of mission statements that are realistic, relevant and very readable. If yours has managed to avoid all the other examples, it may fall into this category – and if that’s the case, you’ve earned my admiration.