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Why Your Mission Statement Sucks

February 2, 2012

If you’re going to have one, make it mean something. Here’s how to rescue your mission statement from platitudes.

No matter how hard you try it’s impossible to walk in a straight line while blindfolded. You won’t just veer off in one direction. Typically you’ll walk in a series of circles.

Don’t believe me? Give it a try. I’ll wait. (Just make sure you go to a really large open area.)

The funny thing is that most people think they’re walking in a straight line. (I did when I tried it.) Whenever we stumble or shift or feel we’re drifting off course we make small course corrections that at the time feel accurate. But those small adjustments take us farther off course because while we know where we want to go we really can’t tell if we’re on the right path.

The same thing happens in business, especially when we try to follow a (theoretically) clear mission statement.

Here’s an example; pretend this is your mission statement:

We are absolutely committed to empower our employees to attain world-class standards of excellence and provide the highest quality products and the most responsive, dependable, proactive, and cost-effective services in the industry.

Sounds good and looks impressive on a wall but means nothing to customers or employees. Here’s how to write a mission statement that means something:

1. Turn your mission statement into targets or goals you can actually measure. When your goals are measurable you always know when you’re veering off course—and you can make the right corrections that keep your business moving forward on as straight a line as possible.

Let’s pull out the word “responsive.” What does that word actually mean to your business? What is the goal? Your goal could be to resolve all complaints within five minutes. Or return all customer calls or emails within one hour. Or have a technician on-site within two hours when emergency service is requested.

Unless “responsive” has a concrete meaning it’s just a platitude, and no one cares about or rallies behind a platitude.

2. Develop simple ways to measure your goals. Establishing goals for key items on your mission statement defines where you want to go, but without measurement systems you’re still blindfolded. Quality is easily measured; so is dependability. Even “proactive” can be measured: Set up a system to, say, ensure that customers are contacted a week before a possible service interruption.

“Proactive” means something—otherwise it shouldn’t be in your mission statement—so decide what it means and find ways to measure your performance against that meaning. Then you’ll make smart course corrections.

3. Give employees the freedom to achieve your goals. Establishing procedures is certainly important, but sometimes the best procedure is to ignore the rules when a customer is in need. The best processes include latitude for making smart judgment calls to resolve problems and meet the individual needs of your customers.

Don’t just say you “empower” your employees; create guidelines that allow them to make intelligent decisions on their own. No operations manual can cover every eventuality; sometimes the best guideline says, “Here’s how far you can go… we trust you to know when that’s necessary.”

When you’re done, your mission statement will no longer look like a mission statement—and that’s a good thing.

Words like “responsive” leave your employees and your business walking in circles. “On-site within two hours” is a goal everyone can aim directly for—and feel proud of achieving.

Jeff Haden

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

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