Have you got one?

It would appear that everyone who’s anyone these days has a corporate mission statement.  In the last thirty years they’ve become one of the top management tools in North America. You’ll find them on corporate walls, T shirts, pizza boxes and in a whole slew of other places. On the surface, mission statements are simple, they are highly inspirational statements, which outline a company’s focus, direction and reason for being. In essence they are the cornerstone of any company’s strategic plan.

Despite their popularity, there has been much debate surrounding the true value of these statements, and the number of cynics and critics seems to be on the rise as we try to make better sense of the, often misunderstood, mission statement.

Former studies have given almost exclusive attention to the “content” side of mission statements and the frequency with which some words or phrases are simply used more than others.  Now while content is important, it’s only part of the bigger picture. It’s time to shift our attention, and start focussing on the link between mission statements and measures of performance and satisfaction. In short, the questions we need to address are: “Do mission statements make a difference in a firm’s performance?” If the true power of a mission statement rests in its ability to a) inspire and motivate workers to a common objective, and b) provide a more focused guide for decision making, are modern day mission statements living up to their billing?

In an effort to answers these questions, I contacted 88 North American companies and posed a series of questions. In a nutshell, I wanted to know how mission statements were actually being used, how satisfied companies were with them, and how useful they were to an organization's existence.

After carefully examining the results, one can only say, the findings were revealing and surprising. The evidence suggests that the majority of mission statements were simply not worth the paper they were written on. Given that these mission statements are supposedly the cornerstones of every company’s strategic plan, one cannot help but be disheartened by these findings.

Let’s have a look at the evidence.

In seventy five percent of the cases, managers admitted they were struggling to live up to their mission statement goals. Even in companies where the mission statement had been in place for more than 10 years, managers claimed they found it impossible to achieve their mission’s aspirations. Living up to the words of their mission statements were hampered by:

  • A lack of clarity and understanding (only 8 percent thought the statement was self-evident to organizational members)
  • A lack of satisfaction with the mission’s content (an outdated mission statement that fails to recognize the importance of the employees in making the organization successful)
  • Little or no alignment of the mission with the organization, its systems or its procedures
  • Poor communication (lack of organizational member input or training on how to implement it)

Considering the low satisfaction with clarity and content, one might assume there were some fundamental problems with how these mission statements were developed in the first place. The evidence collected in my study clearly supports this assumption. In over 73% of the cases, organizational members claimed they were dissatisfied with the process used in developing their company’s mission statement.

My findings further show that the lion’s share of these mission statements were given the corporate blessing without consideration or input from key company stakeholders – but especially the ‘regular employees’. While in some cases there was a limited degree of stakeholder participation, most of these mission statements were developed only by a select group involving the CEO and upper management. It’s not surprising, therefore, how mission statements of this nature do little to inspire and motivate organizational members on a widespread company basis. They particularly show a blatant disregard for non-management and front-line workers, the ones upon whom the company is ultimately depending to implement the mission and to make it real.

Given the results of my study, it would be easy enough to throw in the towel and join the jaded naysayers who believe that mission statements are nothing more than hot air, hype and hysteria, and do nothing to improve a firm’s performance. Despite this doom and gloom outlook, I believe there is hope. In efforts to turn things around and ensure that a mission statement is an effective strategic tool, it is incumbent on senior managers to understand a couple of crucial practices. Firstly, they must choose wisely the items or components to be included in their firm’s mission statement, thereby ensuring clarity, focus and inclusiveness, and secondly, they must secure and encourage active participation by a large number of stakeholders in the mission’s development – but especially the front line. Only by investing the time, energy and resources into these practices will mission statements achieve what they are designed to do; provide inspiration and motivation for ALL organizational members and bestow tighter focus on the allocation of resources.