Why do mission statements suck?

“To satisfy our customers’ desires for personal entertainment and information through total customer satisfaction.”

Years ago, Seth Godin found and shared the above mission statement. Sure, it is a terrible one. But, at least that one was bad enough to get noticed. Usually, the mission statements that I have to deal with are more like this:

“Collaborating with partners of government, community-based organizations, communities and the private sector, we provide a community engagement and dialogue clearinghouse:

  • To provide capacity training and resources to build individual and collective skills and knowledge in small and large-scale engagement and dialogue processes.
  • To facilitate customized community engagement and dialogue design and facilitation.
  • To convene community engagement and dialogue processes.
  • To collect and publish information and best practices of community engagement planning, strategic engagement, organizational renewal and public policy development.”

Actually, even this one is not that bad. Once, I had a client, who had a three-page-long mission statement. THREE-PAGE LONG! Apparently, somewhere something went wrong. Let’s find out why mission statements usually suck.

A mission statement’s primary goal is to rally your troops. Sure, your mission statement communicates what you do and why you exist to the rest of the world but keep in mind that it is mostly an internal alignment tool. It is written by the senior management for the employees. Based on my experience (and I took part in many mission statement writing torture sessions) senior management is simply incapable of thinking like an employee. This is a fundamental defect of human mind. When we communicate our ideas, we “assume” the receiver of the message knows as much as we do. In Made to Stick, Heath brothers explain this situation with an academic study.

During an experiment, one group was asked to pick a very well-known song and tap out the rhythm to a listener by knocking on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song. As expected the success rate was very low (2.5%). But that was not the main goal of the experiment. Before tapping, tappers were asked to predict the odds that the listener would guess correctly. The predicted odds were 50%!

Why is there such a discrepancy? It is because the tapper had the song playing in their minds and they failed to realize that the listener was clueless. For the tapper, the song was so obvious (they had it running in their minds). For the listener the song sounded like a Morse code. For the tapper, the listener was stupid because he/she could not guess the “obvious” song. For the listener, the tapper was a riddler. Now replace “the song” with “mission statement”, “the tapper” with “senior management” and “the listener” with “employee” and you see why most mission statements suck. How do we fix it?

I always tell my clients to strip the mission statement to its core and make it simple enough that everybody understands. Usually, senior managers think too deep. A front line employee does not have 30 years of experience in corporate governance. They don’t know much about international trade. That is why your mission statement has to be simple enough to be understood and remembered by everyone. Here is Google’s:

“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Today’s actionable tip: When an organization hires me to write their mission statement, I position the statement as a litmus test and tell senior managers this: “Think of your mission statement as the ultimate criteria that your frontline employees use as the benchmark for all of their behaviours.”

Place du Commerce, Verdun, QC H3E, Canada

2 Replies to “Why do mission statements suck?”

  1. Very good points Gunter. The principles you discuss here don’t just apply for mission statements.

    For example, the experiment could apply to the relationship between people writing marketing copy for an organisation (for the website, perhaps), and the organisation’s customers. Left unchecked, the marketing folk will write long detailed copy full of inside-jargon that will be mostly 1) boring and 2) incomprehensible to the readers. The writers have the song in their head – they’re tapping away thinking it makes perfect sense. As for the customers, they go buy their stuff somewhere else.

    Google’s mission statement is beautifully succinct and precise. Every day, it helps Google’s employees make decisions, from the multimillion strategic move to the utterly mundane. It’s a beacon in the fog.

  2. Thank you for your feedback Matt. I agree with you that most of the marketing copy is simply mediocre. Things get even worse at websites. Because there is no limitation for word count, companies tend to share every single piece of information, disregarding relevancy. I think websites should have word count caps. Only then, they can communicate what really matters.

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