The problem with mission statements
I must confess that I am a sucker for "purpose". If an organisation offers more than just a product or service and it is successful in bonding with its customers, it will be on to a winner. When childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started making Ben & Jerry's ice cream they didn't put a mission statement over their door. However, they both had a social conscience and it wasn't long before they started donating a significant proportion of the company's profits to community orientated projects. Now Ben & Jerry’s is part of Unilever the mission statement has become more formal. It is in three parts. The first part (thank goodness) is that it aims to make fantastic ice cream. It then has a social mission to use the company and be innovative and make the world a better place. Finally, it has an economic mission to manage the company for sustainable financial growth. However, this mission statement has got the company into trouble in the last few weeks as it has decided to stop selling ice cream in Israeli settlements in occupied territories. How has the company’s mission statement been stretched to say where it will and will not sell ice cream?
Once a company moves on from being a small start-up, the mission statements are the brain child of many internal meetings and crafted by talented copywriters. This means mission statements are in danger of becoming meaningless and vacuous. For many years Google had an unofficial motto "Don't be evil". This rather weird statement was a North-star for the company guiding it to do no harm and hopefully do some good. Now Google is a public company and part of Alphabet Inc its mission statement has become more formal – “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This seems entirely sensible and isn't full of the puffery that we see in many mission statements of large companies today.
The trouble is that every large company thinks it needs a mission statement and so they devise pious sounding words that are meaningless except to make them look good in their annual reports. This sort of dribble is dangerous because a company has to live up to the mission statement and if it doesn’t, it will be picked up by employees, customers and journalists.
Uber had a mission statement that reflected on the aggressive nature of Travis Kalanick, the company's founder. It was among other things "Always be hustlin". This may have sounded macho in the company’s boardroom but it didn't go down too well when Mr Kalanick was captured in video swearing at one of the company’s drivers in a row over fares. The spat didn’t look good to shareholders, customers and regulators and in a short time Mr Kalanick was forced to resign.
Jeroen Kraaijenbrink wrote a great opinion piece on this subject in Forbes called Why Your Mission And Vision Statements Don’t Work (And What To Do About It). He listed nine points that could indicate a failure of your Mission statement. It is worth bearing these in mind:
Reason 1: Your organization is not mission or vision-driven
Reason 2: You think that having a mission statement is mandatory
Reason 3: You devise a mission statement that looks just the same as those of other companies
Reason 4: You make your mission statement too generic and interchangeable
Reason 5: Your mission statement tries to please everyone and so fails to please lots of people
Reason 6: Your mission statement is up in the clouds and loses touch with reality
Reason 7: Your mission statement is created to suit the outside world and bears no resemblance to your own world
Reason 8: You have a mission statement that you don’t or can’t live up to
Reason 9: You love formulating nice mission statements rather than enacting them
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