Make a statement with your mission statement

Good mission statements require a deep understanding of the organization and significant amounts of effort

Mission statements help define an organization's direction and inspire employees to achieve corporate goals. Unfortunately, countless mission statements are meaningless, forgettable and totally ineffective. Many are merely an uninspiring collection of buzzwords that could have been written by Dilbert's boss. If that describes yours, you have work to do!

Good mission statements require a deep understanding of the organization and significant amounts of effort, but they can last for years. An organization that publishes a new mission every year is undoubtedly in chaos.

Creating an effective mission statement requires that you get five things right:

Input. Before creating a mission statement, solicit input from a broad spectrum of the organization. Survey people at all levels, across multiple business units and from all parts of the world where you do business. Important customers and strategic suppliers can also provide different and valuable perspectives.

Team. Creating a mission statement with a large team is usually an exercise in frustration. Most team members will have slightly different ideas about what is important. Large teams inevitably attempt to honor multiple viewpoints and consume large amounts of time wordsmithing rather than adding value. The resulting mission statements are often long, overly generalized and ineffective. Though it's necessary to solicit ideas from a wide audience, it's ultimately up to the leader and a few key staffers to design a mission statement that accurately defines the organization's future direction.

Message. Mission statements are grounded in reality while simultaneously motivating staffers. A good mission statement guides an organization by providing a point to steer toward and powerful inspiration. In the third century B.C., Chinese general Xiang Yu was facing defeat in a rebellion against Emperor Qin. He created the ultimate mission statement by burning his ships at the Zhang River and destroying his troops' cooking pots. The army had to win to survive.

Process. A good mission statement can't be created in a single meeting. It's the result of a multistage creative process that involves brainstorming, discussing, refining and redesigning. Resist the impulse to publish the first version of a new mission statement. Test a draft version with a wide audience, then get feedback and buy-in from a variety of employees, departments, geographical locations and key customers. Reiterate the creative process as necessary.

Exposure. Communicate the mission statement broadly and repeatedly. People often need to hear a message multiple times to understand its ramifications for their departments. One Fortune 500 company had been wildly successful in the US, but it determined that future growth would primarily come from Asia. The CIO and her staff developed and communicated a new IT mission statement around "global IT." After months of consistently communicating the opportunities and requirements ahead, the CIO was distressed when the head of network operations asked the obvious: whether his department needed to be designing a worldwide network.

An easy way to evaluate the effectiveness of your organization's mission statement is to notice how your employees use it. If they quote it, refer to it when making business trade-offs or regard it as a corporate touchstone, it's a winner. If it becomes an integral part of your organization's decision-making process, it's golden. But if it's filed away in desk drawers and forgotten, it's useless. Pull it out, dust it off, and try again.

Don't take shortcuts when creating a vision designed to inspire your employees and entice customers. Take the time and effort to develop a compelling mission statement that will power the transformation every organization needs.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Leverage partners, which helps organizations invest well in IT.

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