A great mission statement, developed and implemented the right way, engages employees, defines priorities and guides daily work. However, most people equate mission statement development with getting a root canal. Mission statements fail for five reasons: 1. Leaders develop them without involving those who implement them. 2. They choke off growth because they focused on the present and not the future. 3. They’re a branding statement not a living document that guides daily work. 4. They’re boring to develop. 5. There’s a perceived conflict of interest when leadership facilitates the process.
Several years ago, we developed a process for mission statement facilitation, The Compelling Mission Statement process. Parker Aerospace, Weyerhaeuser, Mayo Clinic, Hewlett Packard, Goodwill of Central and Northern Arizona, The Arizona Tech Council, several school systems, to name a few, have experienced this engaging and effective process. Here are our lessons learned:
- Include those people who have to implement the mission statement and who have a stake in its success. When San Marcos Unified School District asked me to help them develop their mission statement and strategic plan, we included the superintendent, school principals, teachers, community members and students. Later, when their finalized Compelling Mission Statement was referenced in discussions, everyone had a vested interest in what it meant because they helped create it.
- Ask questions with a focus on the future. Those questions are: Who are we? What do we do? For whom do we do it? And Why? While these questions are not unique to mission statement creation, we’ve found that most people have a mindset of the current or near future. In short, most unsuccessful mission statements define “what is” not “what could be”. The latter is trickier because it takes real discussion about how the team and the organization needs and wants to transform. It requires putting a stake in the ground into the unknown. With Goodwill of Central and Northern Arizona we asked the group to think of themselves not one or two years out, but 15. As a result, back in 2015, they created a Compelling Mission Statement and strategic plan for 2030. This provided leadership, the board, and employees a roadmap of not only who they were but what they would become.
- Make your mission statement a working document, not a marketing document. A good Compelling Mission Statement will be the first stop along your planning process. (By the way, a team can and should have a mission statement as well, since they are a microcosm of the organization. John Katzenbach in his book Wisdom of Teams, talks about the power of a clear and compelling team mission statement.) When we worked with The Arizona Tech Council, they had a mission statement that was only used for marketing purposes. When we helped them shift their mindset about mission statements from marketing document to a planning tool, they had the big questions answered first. Many times, I have seen strategic planning sessions get derailed when they fail to answer the big questions early on that are found in a great mission statement.
- Make the process of developing your mission statement fun and lively. Any meeting where people sit for hours on end can be boring. When we worked with Parker Aerospace, we kept the energy high by doing three things. Mining for versus resisting conflict. Truth is attention-grabbing. Half-truths are boring. 2. Keep the pace fast enough to accomplish a lot but slow enough to get to root cause. 3. Get people off their feet through a variety of well-timed activities and icebreakers.
- Get an outside facilitator. When a leader of a team facilitates the development of a mission statement, they send a subtle message that their vote is worth more than others in the room. Think of the rare occasion when a movie director is also the star actor. Most cannot pull off this schizophrenic feat. When DAVIS, an architecture and interior design firm out of Phoenix asked me to facilitate their annual planning meetings, they did so because the owner/leader could then fully participate as an equal member of the team. I was deemed the “keeper of the process”, guiding the flow of the conversation, ensuring everyone followed our codes of engagement and challenged them to have truthful discussions. I could do all of that and more, because I was not offering content.
Compelling Mission Statements can be the written glue that holds a team and a company together. In good times and in bad, they define how leaders and their teams act, prioritize and work. They are developed by all stakeholders, focused on the future, used as a planning tool, and facilitated with a skilled external professional in a fun and engaging way.