A Burning Sense of Mission

April 2, 2003
Before reading this column, please gather the following: one book of matches,one large steel drum (empty), one container of lighter fluid, and all availablecopies of your organization’s mission statement. "Copies" can includebusiness cards, plaques, wall-hangings, desk ornaments, and other imprinteditems.

    Situate the steel drum outdoors on flat ground at least 50 feet from thenearest building. Fill the drum with all collected copies of the missionstatement. Sprinkle liberally with lighter fluid. Then ignite a match and tossit into the drum, being careful to maintain a safe distance. Stand back andwatch the blaze. Cheering is optional but recommended.

    So now you know: I’ve got a problem with mission statements. Missions arevital. Meaningful missions are what prompt people to use their hearts and mindsat work. But mission statements are something else entirely.

    Sure, there are organizations that have mission statements and meaningfulmissions. There might even be a connection between the two. But there are manymore companies that have elaborate mission statements and yet are all abouttasks, only about tasks, devoid of any deep purpose.

    How does it happen? A few senior leaders huddle in a conference room, theycobble together their best dangling modifiers, and they emerge with "our"mission statement. It gets sealed in laminate, distributed to the employees,slapped on marketing materials, and added to the organization’s Web site. Thenit’s on to the next task.

    Ask most execs about their mission and you’ll hear a common response: "Youmean a mission statement, right? Sure, we have one. We did that a year or soago. Let’s see, it’s... " And the exec flips over a business card for aquick refresher, reading it with all the passion of someone scanning the day’sobituaries.

    Ask employees about their mission, and most will scratch their heads and talkabout tasks. Ask them about their mission statement, and you’ll get all sortsof responses. Some will shrug their shoulders and wonder aloud whether they havea mission statement. Others will mumble something vague about "being worldclass" or "serving customers." And many will laugh out loud. "Ourmission statement? You mean their mission statement." By "their," theymean top management.

    Mission statements became all the rage during the 1990s. Stephen Covey’sThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989, had a lot todo with it. With a zillion copies sold to date, the book exposed people to theimportance of mission statements for individuals, families, and organizations.

    Organizations took the advice--sort of. With factory-like efficiency,executives began to produce long-winded, run-on mission statements. Along theway, they fooled themselves into thinking that they were creating a moremission-driven workplace. In reality, they were further alienating employees andgiving Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, more fodder for his cynical cartoonstrip.

    Covey warned us about this. It’s right there on page 139 of The 7 Habits:To be effective, the mission statement "has to come from within the bowels ofthe organization. Everyone should participate in a meaningful way--not just thetop strategy planners, but everyone. Once again, the involvement process is asimportant as the written product and is the key to its use."

    I’m not sure about the bowels metaphor. I’d rather have a mission thatemerges from the heart and mind instead of the bowels. But I appreciate what he’ssaying--and I hope you do, too.

    So here we are in 2003, up to our hips in an overproduction of meaninglessmission statements. What can we do?

    First, get rid of your current mission statement. Burning it is one option.The dramatic touch makes a powerful point, and there are wonderful team-buildingbenefits when employees lock arms and sing songs around a roaring fire. But ifyou can’t get your hands on an empty steel drum, or if you’d just as soonavoid all things incendiary, use one of the traditional methods. Hit the deletebutton. Activate the shredder. Load up the trash can.

    Then start from scratch, this time avoiding the efficient (but terriblyineffective) factory approach to generating a mission statement. Involve as manyemployees as possible, in all areas and levels of the organization. Get themtalking about customers and purpose. Ponder exactly why you’re all inbusiness. And keep the conversation going and growing.

    If a statement develops, great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. What youwant is a brightly burning sense of mission--and not the flameout of a missionstatement that does more harm than good.

Workforce, April 2003, p. 26 -- Subscribe Now!

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