How to Write a Mission Statement That Isn't Dumb

Why most mission statements are dumb -- and how to write one that isn't.

Here are four mission statements. Two are from real organizations. Two were created by Dilbert's Automatic Mission Statement Generator. Can you guess which ones are genuine?

1. It is our job to continually foster world-class infrastructures as well as to quickly create principle-centered sources to meet our customer's needs.

2. Our challenge is to assertively network economically sound methods of empowerment so that we may continually negotiate performance-based infrastructures.

3. To improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities.

4. Respect, integrity, communication, and excellence.

Mission statements are like corporate Hallmark cards. Often written in a bland cursive font and plastered conspicuously at headquarters, these aspiring epigrams are pretty words in Air Supply -- like rhythm. Sometimes they're created at a retreat in the woods, between the trust fall and the passing of the speaking stick. Vigorous fights over semantics last for hours, even months. Then you end up with some variation of the jargony quasi-poetry above.

For three years, I sat on an advisory board at my alma mater that helped shape the university's entrepreneurship program. At every board meeting, someone would say, "So why are we here?" Then someone would read the mission statement (it was packed with words like "commitment" and "empowerment"), and even the most dramatic James Earl Jones -- like vocal effect couldn't help motivate us to think more clearly. Because it was neither clear nor useful -- and if it wasn't useful, why the heck were we arguing about it?

Mission statements don't have to be dumb. In fact, they can be very valuable, if they articulate real targets. The first thing I'd do is forget the exact words and remember the reason for a statement in the first place. In 2006, Wilson Learning surveyed 25,000 employees from the finance and tech industries. Respondents said they wanted a leader who could "convey clearly what the work unit is trying to do." The same applies to mission state-ments, which set the tone. Employees, vendors, and clients don't get stoked by fuzzy mission statements. They will line up behind concrete goals.

The phrase "big hairy audacious goal" (or BHAG) was first proposed by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1994 book Built to Last. They say a BHAG is "clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort, often creating immense team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal .... A BHAG should not be a sure bet ... but the organization must believe 'we can do it anyway.' "

Microsoft came up with probably the most well-known BHAG, "A computer on every desk and in every home, all running Microsoft software." Amazon has a great one for its Kindle, too: "Every book ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds."

Both statements do something crucial: They quantify the goal. Microsoft doesn't just want to sell software -- it wants its software on every computer, in every home. Amazon doesn't just want you to buy a book; it wants to help you do so in under one minute.

Most companies aren't so successful at laying out their goals (or, obviously, at execution). And in my experience, not-for-profits are especially awful at creating BHAGs with clear targets, preferring warm, fuzzy words that have all the gloss of inspiration and none of the soul and drive of the real thing.

Here is my challenge: Write a mission statement with a goal that's an action, not a sentiment; that is quantifiable, not nebulous. If you're trying to sell a product, how and how many? If you're trying to change lives, how and whose? Take your wonky mission statement and rip it to shreds. Then ponder your ambitions, and write and rewrite the thing until it reflects -- in real, printable words and figures -- the difference that you want to make.

Oh, and the mission statements above? Nos. 1 and 2 are Dilbert's. No. 3 is the mission statement of the United Way, and no. 4 belonged to Enron.

Email Nancy Lublin, the CEO of Do Something, with your nominees for best and worst mission statement.

Feedback: lublin@fastcompany.com>

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25 Comments

  • Chris

    You all sound an awful lot alike...

    Here is my challenge: Write a mission statement with a goal that's an action, not a sentiment; that is quantifiable, not nebulous. If you're trying to sell a product, how and how many? If you're trying to change lives, how and whose? Take your wonky mission statement and rip it to shreds. Then ponder your ambitions, and write and rewrite the thing until it reflects -- in real, printable words and figures -- the difference that you want to make.

    Nancy Lublin

    Here is my challenge to you and your company: Write a mission statement with a goal that’s an action, not a sentiment. Make it quantifiable, not nebulous. If you have an old wonky mission statement that sounds like a corporate Hallmark Card (you know what I’m talking about), then take it and rip it to shreds. Then reflect on your true passions and values, and write a mission statement using the guidelines above that reflects the difference your business will make in the world.

    Wendy Maynard

  • simon igoche

    I want to write a mission statement for my company for web addy...hw do i go abt it. Thank you

  • Dr. Laser

    Mission statements should really be the essence of the why and what behind the who. With most mission statements the creator takes some hackneyed buzz words and comes up with a creative sentence. Rarely can you extrapolate the essence of a company from its mission statement. This is an unfortunate error that many leaders are guilty of.

    Dr. Laser
    http://fractionalc02.com
    http://botoxandfillers.net

  • Robin Cook

    I couldn't agree more. Most mission statements are marketing statements (& rather bad ones, at that), not mission statements.

    That said, here are a few GOOD ones that I've encountered:

    The Ritz Carlton hotels: "Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen"

    Cirque du Soleil: "Invoke the Imagination; Provoke the senses; Evoke the Emotions"

    GSD&M advertising agency: "Visionary Ideas That Make a Difference".

    These are truly mission statements - each speaks volumes; each is immediately understandable & communicates the essence of both the business & the expectations; each can be easily & fully internalized.

  • J. Goodman

    I believe those are Mottos or taglines rather than mission statements, at least when glancing at their websites. For instance, according to their website, Cirque du Soleil's mission statement is:

    Cirque du Soleil is an international organization founded in Quebec and dedicated to the creation, production and performance of artistic works whose mission is to invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions of people around the world.

    Not that strong taglines aren't as important as a mission statement (or even more important in some ways), but just wanting to point out the difference.

  • pamelahawley

    Dear Nancy, what a pleasure see your excellent writeup on the clarity of missions. I just met with Frances Hesselbein, CEO of Leader to Leader Institute and protegee of Peter Drucker. One of the first things she said to me about mission is "It should fit on a t-shirt." Clear, inspiring, compelling.

    Thank you for a wonderful reminder. All best!

    Pamela

    Pamela Hawley
    Founder and CEO
    UniversalGiving
    http://www.universalgiving.org

    Living and Giving
    http://pamelahawley.wordpress....

  • Fred Collopy

    Nancy, your approach to drawing attention to the problem is very nice; clever and interesting. And I agree with most of what you offer. But I think there is one small issue I would take issue with and an a piece of advice I would add to yours.

    I think the quest for numbers can easily become a distraction, so the quantifiable goal is the thing I take issue with. Sometimes, what you want to achieve will be quantifiable and of course, then you might as well put it into the statement. But often it will not be.

    So, what is the alternative if you want to achieve a similar level of concreteness and reality. Every mission statement, objective or goal should be subject to a simple test. Is its opposite meaningful? Can we imagine that another company or organization would want that as its mission? Statements like "with integrity" end up being excluded because we cannot reasonable assert that another company would wish to undertake the same task without integrity. A statement like "to place a computer on every desk" remains meaningful and specifies that we intend to function in the office environment. We can imagine another company wishing to put "a computer on every lab bench." I am less sure about "all running our software." To me that sounds like a fantasy, not a mission. It imagines a world without free entry into markets, a justice department, or much respect for our customers. But then perhaps those are essential parts of being hairy and/or audacious.

  • Chris Reich

    The Mission Statement is only as meaningful as the culture developed and lived by by management. Some of the worst dictatorships in the world have beautiful constitutions.

    Mission Statements are only words. The culture must be ethics based on sincere principle or the Mission Statement, no matter how simply stated becomes mere words.

    Chris Reich
    TeachU.com

  • Ephraim Njoku

    Nancy, to put up a mission statement isn't easy you know but once you do that its ideal to work towards that so that people would see you as responsible and serious to attract subsequent dealings with that person

  • Arleen Anderson

    For every company, mission statement is very important. It's actually something that companies must strictly follow. Proper dissemination that may result to out of focus is the most common problem of some companies. Let all the employees know the company's mission statement and follow it religiously. Otherwise, the possibility of failure will increase.

    Arleen Anderson

  • Tyler Adams

    @Robin Maybe i'm pessimistic about mission statements simply because of the premise of the article; most of them are dumb and hold no value. For example, the mission statement you quote above sounds nice, but what does it actually tell us about how the organization is going to take action. How is it going to make a world free of war? How is it going to create a society with equity and justice, etc.

    Shouldn't it be more like:

    "To have all the world's leaders sign a peace agreement in the next 10 years"

    "To lobby for legislation to be passed in this administration that ensures equal rights for all" etc. etc.

  • Jim Jackson

    The power of a mission statement is when you make it real and bring it to life everyday. It has to have action and more than just on a coffee mug.

  • Robin Gray

    I've spent most of my career in nonprofits, and yes, people (staff and donors) still care about them.

    One of my personal favorites is the mission statement of Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), the Quaker peace lobby:

    We seek a world free of war and the threat of war.
    We seek a society with equity and justice for all.
    We seek a community where every person's potential may be fulfilled.
    We seek an earth restored.

    Best,

    Robin in MD/DC

  • Michael Klein

    Nancy,

    My firm believes Mission Statements were a well intended idea, designed to motivate, that in most cases should never have been done. Businesses are not started for a mission. One or more people get together and create a Concept they believe has market value. Success and clear decision making usually follow if the Concept works, and the business is constantly reminded of the reason for its existence.

    We apply the Creative Process in Business to extract the clear and precise Concept behind the Business. Once the Concept is identified, it serves as the Highway for future decision making at all levels within a company and it engages and resonates with perspective customers.

    Truth be known, the Mission of every company or non=profit is to attract revenue for performing a service or manufacturing a product. It is the Concept behind the service or product that differentiates.

    Thanks for the opportunity for this dialogue.

  • Leanne Hoagland Smith

    Finally some honesty about mission statements. Most mission statements are vision statements in disguise. By keeping it simple, helps with the execution and that is one of the top problems facing management. From my perspective and what I share with clients is there are up to 3 goals and it is for 12 to 18 months.
    #1 - Goal is sales, revenue or profits. Without dollars no one will be in business.
    #2 - Quality standards from local county health standards to ISO or Baldrige specific to maintaining business viability
    #3 - Continuing education or professional development units such as those required for doctors, lawyers, realtors, financial advisors, etc. Without those CEU's or PDU's, the business owner may lose licenses and hence cannot secure revenue.

    However a mission statement without a vision statement and even more importantly a values statement will still lead to unaligned behaviors creating a working harder not smarter culture. All of this evolves from strategy which then leads to the structure, the processes, the rewards and the people. (Star Model)

    If there is confusion about the mission statement, I suggest returning to the dictionary and look up the meaning of this word or replay an old television episode of Mission Impossible.

    Leanne Hoagland-Smith

  • Richard Geller

    Nancy, Axel Davids, and others,
    As an instructional designer/corporate communications writer/consultant, I've had more than a few encounters with mission, goal, vision, value and positioning statements over the years.

    I agree with you both that the ultimate test for any of the above is the degree to which they have real utility to folks at all levels of the organization, especially in regards to providing clarity, focus and direction. Implicit, of course, is that the folks who draft the M.G.V.V.P. statements "say what they mean and mean what they say." In my experience, this is often a big issue... which brings us back to getting to genuine clarity, focus and direction.

    I also agree that a good mission or goal statement clarifies exactly what you really want to accomplish: "My stories, poems and songs read and/or heard by tens of thousands around the world." It helps keep you focused. Is this strategy, approach etc. bringing me closer to achieving that mission/goal or not?

    Values statements, however, serve a somewhat different purpose in that their utility is most evident when an organization faces a tough/moral decision, as for example, if in order to get our software on every computer or every desktop, are we're willing to act contrary to existing restraint of trade laws? The mission or goal statement tells you where you want to go; the values statement clarifies how you'll treat people as you make the journey (e.g., Do no evil). For years now, I've named my hard drive: "Be Helpful." Whenever I work with anyone that's what I want to remind myself to try to accomplish and try to be.

    Brand positioning and positioning statements in general are generally more targeted—designed for communicating with other organizations, groups or individuals in ways that will serve to make them more receptive to what your products or services are about and the benefits they potentially offer them.

    --
    Richard Geller
    http://www.aSiteAboutSomething...

  • Tyler Adams

    Not to sound cynical, but does anybody actually care about mission statements anymore? Do customers? Do employees? I'd be curious to see a poll of employees and customers asking them this question about a particular company...

  • Distility

    Nancy,

    Maybe the reason so many mission statements are dumb is because the idea that every company needs one is dumb.

    There are some organizations, certainly yours, that are clearly on a mission. For them mission statements are a natural fit.

    Some companies that are fueled by vision, they are attracted to vision statements.

    Others are driven by their values, so doing their corporate values makes perfect sense.

    The purely competitive firms love to focus their day around their positioning statement.

    Others are focused on combining their customer need and their passion. Perfect candidates for a brand promise statement.

    But does a company need all of the above? I don't think so.

    Do they confuse all of the above, thereby diluting concepts and confusing their stakeholders and audience? I think so.

    What about you?

    -- Axle

    --
    Axle Davids | Distility - 1day1brand
    www.distility.com | www.twitter.com/1day1brand