Mission statements (are useless)

When talking to a board about the relevance of sustainability in their everyday practices, a reply I often get is: “We’re already thinking about/working with sustainability, we’ve added it to our mission statement”. If you feel like you need a mission statement to convince people you’re working on a topic, you’re probably not doing a great job actually working on it.

Shareholders versus customers

The first thing I would like to discuss is the difference between shareholders and customers. The revenue of your company is always created by the amount of stuff you sell. Whatever you’re making or doing, your customers have to buy it from you. This also means that everything you do should be relevant for your customer. A customer doesn’t care about your mission statement, where you’re heading to and the great things you could achieve if only…. Customers care about what you’re offering, and if that offer is properly aligned with their personal values.

When I go shopping for example, I go to this supermarket that only sells organic, local or (if not local) fair trade stuff. Even though I have never read their mission statement (and have no intention of ever reading it), I will keep buying my food, soap and other stuff here. This shop sells what I need, so I go there.

Now, as a shareholder we might be looking at a different story. You might argue that for someone to invest his/her money in a company, you need some sort of promise written down. But most investors don’t really care what they’re investing in, as long as it’s profitable. The few who do, won’t be interested in what you’re saying you do but in what you’re actually doing.

Authenticity (DWYSYWD)

In his book “The Radical L.E.A.P.”, Steve Farber also discusses the relevance of mission statements:

A vision statement doesn’t generate energy, love does, great ideas do, principles and values do. A vision statement is usually about as energizing and memorable as a saltine cracker.

Whether or not people will believe you (as a person and as a company), depends on whether or not you’re authentic. As mentioned before on this blog, authenticity is all about DWYSYWD; Do What You Say You Will Do.

The same thing I said about my supermarket goes for big companies like Patagonia. They probably have a superbly well-written mission statement fabricated by a publicity agency, but I haven’t read it. I believe Patagonia is sincerely committed to sustainability, because they’re acting like it. They don’t need a big mission statement because every fibre of the company is breathing sustainability.

Testing the relevance of your own mission statement

Mission statements rarely have an impact beyond the boardroom. They are artificial statements created by the board on a team-weekend, handed out to the employees who actually do the job, read, laughed with, discarded and forgotten. The reason for this is not that your employees don’t understand what you wrote; the reason is they know you don’t understand it.

A fun game to test the value of your companies mission statement is this one:

  1. Host a board-meeting to discuss the mission statement
  2. Write down all the buzzwords in the mission statement on a blackboard (sustainability, innovation, hands-on, user centered, community driven, open, transparent…)
  3. Ask the board members to individually write down (in normal spoken language) the definition of each buzzword
  4. Compare the different definitions, there are 2 possible outcomes for this test:
    1. Everyone has written down the same definitions (rare): Congratulations, your board is able to actually align their vision. Now rewrite your mission statement so that everyone actually understands what your saying
    2. Everyone is interpreting the buzzwords in a different way (more likely): If you don’t know what you’re talking about, how can your employees? Work out common goals and targets, and if you really have to, write them down in an understandable mission statement (no buzzwords this time).
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About leyssensjan

WHY I DO WHAT I DO As a designer and entrepreneur, I want to develop systems that have a strong impact on short term and will guide society towards a more sustainable, social and economically different system in the long term. WHAT I DO I blog about and do projects with people and organisations driven by passion. I'm always on the look for new projects, ideas and people to meet, contact me!

4 comments

  1. I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of months now and each week I am struck by the same feeling: “I partly understand his point of view, but I mostly disagree with it”. This week is no exception.

    Yes, I understand that this is a blog meant to stimulate thoughts – not necessarily serve as a guideline for best practice (by the way, you have succeeded at stimulating thought; so kudos for that) – but by only giving half of the story, you sometimes throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Sure, mission statements, core and purpose-driven business – the topics of your last three posts – have all been misused and abused in the past. They have morphed into weapons for the window-dressing obsession of publicists and marketers… but does this alone make them bad? It is inevitable that if you look at the worst aspects of anything you will ultimately become disillusioned by it. I think you are guilty of setting up a straw man.

    Hell, if we just looked at the child pornography, fraud, spam, trolls (sorry if I am being one) and stupid pictures of cats, we would also conclude that the internet is useless!

    Mission statements (both implicit and explicit) can be used to effectively align strategies. Core business is also a good tactic; specifically when >80% of your revenue comes from <20% sales (that 20% should be your core business) and purpose-driven business (whether realised or not) can motivate employees and customers to personally buy into your brand.

    Do I agree with you that we shouldn't believe everything just because it is widely practised: absolutely! Do I agree that corporate empathy and responsibility cannot be created by only using buzzwords and other management fads: probably. But should we disregard all forms of corporate convention because they have their downsides: I'm unconvinced that we should.

    Maybe you can appease the pedants like me by writing your posts in an interrogative manner instead of the prescriptive one?

    P.S. your 4-point list at the end WAS useful; I really liked it.

    • Hi Falko,

      Thanks for the reply.
      Of course my post are sometimes (often) only true for a part of the issues I’m describing here. I personally believe it’s vital as a manager to have a vision, but until now I haven’t seen a vision statement yet which a) guided people into acting differently or b) are used for something else than windowdressing (I know managers who are working on sustainability that don’t need a statement to emphasise that (actions are more powerfull to convince people), and managers who completely miss the point).

      I do believe a good vision can be an extremely useful tool, but I don’t know if a vision statement is the best way to translate it…

      As for the reason I’m writing, I (as you remarked correctly) want to trigger people to work consciously. With that in mind, everything I say and write is an opinion. It’s not true or false, it’s something I want you to think about.

      I will try to write a post in an interrogative way next time (I’m still looking for the best way to tell my story, so that might be a fun thing to try). I’m also constantly looking for guest-writers and guest-posts. If you’re interested in writing a post in which you describe your point of view, I’d be happy to publish it.

      Cheers,
      Jan

      • I’m glad you saw my comment in the way it was intended: to stimulate discussion, not just a negative criticism. It is very difficult to comment on someone else’s work without sounding like a douche-bag.

        I sympathise with you. An objective, fact-driven post would be boring (to write and read). Your writing has a greater impact because you take a stance, pick a side and are willing to play devil’s advocate. You should keep doing that. I just feel that there are probably more subtle ways to convey your message.

        Lastly, I will continue to read your work – even though I don’t always agree with you – because it is thoughtful and original. Keep it up.

  2. I came here to say much the same as Falko – until I got three quarters of the way through the article, I thought you were saying that all mission statements were useless and that there was no place for them. By the end, you are saying that it’s about making sure mission statements are clear and understandable, and that the company has a shared understanding of what they mean.
    I totally agree that a mission statement does not bring about change – but it can be a signpost for what change is needed. If well used, it can help management to make sure all the actions they take are moving in the right direction.
    Or, if the company does not need to change right now, a useful way of expressing the company’s purpose to all its people clearly and understandably.
    The problem comes when mission statements bear no relation to the actual company and the experience of people working there – that’s when people laugh and throw them out. And sometimes this is the fault of the marketing team putting them together – but sometimes it’s that the management has lost touch with its own organisation, or does not have a clear view of the way forward. That’s often when you get the buzzword bingo versions!
    I always enjoy your posts, interesting stuff.

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