Mission Statements aren't dead yet

July 18, 2011 / by Michael K. Redman

(But they’ve been mostly dead all day)

In today’s fragmented world and new global economy many employees and business owners say that Missions Statements don’t work or they are a thing of the past. They point to nameless companies who had their mission statement posted all over the place, but no one knew it and worse yet no one lived it, especially the management. If this was your only experience with Mission Statements then you’d be smart to turn the other way and leave the idea in the dust. BUT… if you are willing to take a few moments and consider the roots and true power of a Mission Statement you could be adding a powerful tool to your companies arsenal, not to mention giving your company a competitive advantage in the market place.

Think of it like this, a “Mission” is really the “WHY” of a company. In many companies today there is no substantial “WHY” for people to rally around and care about. If the Mission Statement is an outward expression of the WHY then it better mean something. Here is my take on the short history and evolution of Mission Statements.

Long ago, before the management movement of the 20th century a few founders of companies started their companies because they saw a need, either because of something they experienced or something they were taught. These business leaders were moved internally to achieve something through their business, either to meet a personal desire or a need in the community. Henry Ford saw an opportunity to create cars that were consistently made. At the time there were over 200 auto manufacturers and every car that they made was custom built. No two were the same and that caused everything to take longer to make which made cars more expensive to own. Ford saw that standardization and an assembly line would make cars more easily available, more cost effective to buy and easier and less expensive to maintain. Eventually either Ford or one of his leaders who was good at managing the people and stuff figured it would make sense to write down the “WHY” of Mr. Ford and the “WHY” was called their mission statement. The first writing was probably more like a mission book but that was too hard to remember. Then someone, probably a writer who had few words and little patience said, “I think we can put this into just a few sentences.” Or at least that is what I imagine happened.

In companies like Ford and many others the “Mission” came out of the heart and passion of the leader. In companies that were growing you could go to those companies and see how the owner talked about “WHY” they did what they did and “WHY” it mattered. The “WHY” impacted how they did it, when they did it, and so-on.

What happened next was the copycat principal (My made-up term). When the mid 20th century management movement came along it became very popular to analyze and implement the same tactics successful companies were using and one of them was the Mission Statement. They took it apart word by word and studied it until they felt there was nothing more to glean from this “amazing” tool. Soon it became the vogue thing to do. Books were written about it, lectures given and consultants consulted on it. Soon every major company had a version of this “Business Tool”. The Mission Statement became a thing of its own. It was what you wanted your employees to do but without the heart of the “WHY.” You see, the Mission Statement originally was a reflection of the founders and the “WHY” came from something that mattered. The companies that were succeeding weren’t succeeding because they had a Mission Statement. They were succeeding, in part, because they had an authentic “WHY” with depth that the company could rally around and that made sense to the day to day work that needed to get done. It was as if the copycat companies were looking at the Mission Statement, the two dimensional reflection, and thinking that was all they needed. They dissected it to pieces, but in the end they only had a dim reflection that had height and width but no depth. It was just a pale reflection of the “WHY.”

When we imitate great things it is a compliment, but we better make sure of two things before we do. The first is that we are imitating the original idea and not a pale reflection. The second is that when we are looking at something great to imitate we need to know that part of the greatness is hidden and that quality imitation requires time and patience.

So now when you hear yourself or someone you know say that a Mission Statement is useless, remember that if it’s based on the “WHY” of substance then it will never lose its value as a rallying cry to the people in a company.

That makes a true Mission Statement a pretty valuable thing in my book.

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