Be Careful What You Ask For:
Getting the Mission Wrong
By Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, Ph.D.
Is your Mission
statement leading you to greater accomplishments or down the road to
This is not a
rhetorical question. Although most businesspeople are aware they
need a mission, having one doesn't mean you will be successful. In
fact, many mission statements have been wordsmithed by marketing and
vetted by legal to a point where they say nothing.
The mission should
be a clear statement of what the organization is all about. Then
employees can make decisions and take actions by asking one simple
decision or action move me closer to or further from accomplishing
No knee-jerk reactions. No crisis management.
The first step is
to have a mission statement that is short and to the point.
Some years ago the
city of Portsmouth, Virginia was down on its luck...but not
completely out of luck. The city brought in a new city manager,
George Hanbury, who set a new – simple – mission for the city:
“Clean City, Economic Development, and Customer Service.” He spread
that mission to every official and employee.
The city turned
around under Hanbury's leadership. Eighteen years later they invited
him back for a special 'George Hanbury Day.' At the reception a man
came up to him. "I'm sure you don't remember me but I drove a
garbage truck when you became city manager. I still remember that
mission you gave us, ‘Clean City, Economic Development, and Customer
Service.’ It changed everything."
That's the power
of a good mission. It's transformational.
But there is a
nasty little problem hiding under the surface. And when you get it
wrong, you can destroy yourself.
A major utility
company created this mission: "During the next decade, we want to
become the best-managed electric utility in the United States and an
excellent company overall, and be recognized as such."
On the surface it
looks fine. But the problem comes in the final words, “be recognized
The CEO and his
team decided the 'recognition' would be winning the prestigious
Japanese quality award named for Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who had been
pivotal in helping Japanese industry recover after World War II.
The prize required
great rigor, dedication and leadership to be achieved. It would
certainly be an important recognition of excellence.
even noticing it, the company’s mission shifted to over-emphasize
“recognized as such.” The company did get some excellent improvement
results but aiming for the prize built a huge quality bureaucracy.
As a former employee quipped, “you couldn't plan lunch without doing
a 7 step storyboard!”
The great day came
and the company achieved its mission measurement -- the Deming
Prize. It was a Pyrrhic victory.
They were attacked
in the local paper and then the Public Service Commission got into
the act. Who was going to pay for all of this? The rate-payers
didn't want to foot the bill! Then came a freak storm and service
was interrupted significantly. The howling media jumped all over the
notion that the company was 'excellent' or 'well-managed.'
It wasn't long
before the CEO was out of work and a memo was 'leaked' announcing
the dismantling of the quality improvement program.
That decision to
add “be recognized as such” led to choosing to win a prize and then
to a distortion of the company's focus. No one meant it to happen.
These were bright, experienced, well-intentioned people. Chasing the
prize (which Dr. Deming himself always criticized) did the damage
long before the papers got into the act.
The point here is
not to 'put down' the company but to be very careful in constructing
your mission. If you use it right, you will accomplish it,
unintended consequences and all.
So how do you
avoid this sort of costly mission meltdown?
Make sure the mission is clear
enough that people can make decisions or take actions based on
moving closer to that statement of intent. For example, the
Portsmouth garbage man might ask himself, “Am I maintaining a
‘clean city’ by putting the cans back neatly on the curb and
picking up any stray garbage that didn’t make it into the
If people can’t remember the
mission or express it in their own words, they can’t implement
it. Keep it simple and to the point. Mission statements don’t
have to be poetic or novels. Both the Portsmouth and utility
company missions are short and to the point and people kept them
in mind easily.
Sit down with individual
employees and make sure they understand how their jobs help
fulfill the mission. These discussions can happen one-on-one or
in the team. The key is to make sure that people can express in
their own works how their job supports the mission.
Track your progress toward the
mission. Are all parts of the mission being accomplished?
Setting goals and objectives that are linked directly to
fulfilling the mission and measuring progress are the keys to
making the mission a reality.
The mission requires regular
scrutiny. Examine it annually to make sure it is still leading
you in the right direction. As you work on your annual plan or
update to your long-range plan, make sure the mission is still
the expression of who you are. But avoid the urge to just tinker
with the words. Changing the mission means you have decided to
Examine your situation
periodically and ask, “Have we slipped off the path without
noticing it?” Look at all your actions and results critically.
Stand back and take a hard, objective look. Have you created
more bureaucracy or made decision-making too complex?
Make sure the mission has staying
power and can guide you over many years. If you’re constantly
changing the mission you may only have a high-level goal. Look
at your long-term vision. Is it clear enough to set a number of
missions to achieve? Or is it a little fuzzy so the missions are
fuzzy and fragile?
One final thought
on developing a powerful mission statement – check out the Preamble
to the U.S. Constitution. It’s a perfect mission and states what
will be done, for whom, and why. Copy from the best and achieve
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