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Getting Funded

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.


A version of this article appeared in the November 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.