Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

3 minute read

How to Write a Mission Statement That Doesn't Suck [Video]

I want to show you why most mission statements are so terrible.

Let's say you founded a pizza parlor. And your first idea for a mission statement is something like this: "Our mission is to serve the tastiest damn pizza in Wake County." That's pretty good. If I worked for you, I could get excited about that. Now here's how it will go off the rails.

So you'll call your colleagues around the conference room table to unveil the mission, and all of the sudden, these people that you like and respect are going to transform into 10th-grade English teachers, nitpicking every word. Everybody starts chiming in with opinions: "Hey, I really like the word 'present' better than 'serve,' it has a nice resonance." And someone else will say, "Well, we obviously can't say 'damn,' that's just offensive." And so it begins. And as you go around the table, your mission statement will be pecked to death.

  • We can't limit ourselves to Wake County—and also, it's not just tasty pizza right, it's about freshness—we should say "high quality" not tasty.
  • Isn't it weird that we mention pizza but not our great salads and calzones? What if we changed it to "highest-quality Italian food"?
  • That's good but even "Italian" seems limiting—what if we decide to move into gyros?
  • Hold the phone, people, we haven't even mentioned the great family atmosphere—the coloring books and big comfy booths and all that.
  • Great point—you know what we're really doing here, at the end of the day? We're providing a family "entertainment solution!"
  • Yeah, solution!
  • NAILED IT.
  • [Dan] Everyone's excited now. You're almost there. And then Steve at the end of the table pipes up ...
  • [Steve] Listen, guys, we haven't mentioned anything about integrity. That's what it's all about, at the end of the day. Integrity.

And is anyone at the table gonna go to the mat against including "integrity?" Nope. So it's in. And presto—there's your new mission statement:

"Our mission is to present with integrity the highest-quality entertainment solutions to families."

That's what 99% of the world's mission statements sound like, and I think you see the trap here—getting so vague and fancy with the language that it just becomes meaningless. Here are 2 ways to avoid it:

Use concrete language. Check out this mission statement from SonicBids, a fast-growing small business: "We want to help musicians get gigs, and promoters book the right bands. ... We're a bunch of people who think that music can truly change the world and make it smaller and better. ... We believe that independent music belongs everywhere: on festival stages; in video game consoles; on film screens; in college theaters; on the radio; in advertisements; on club stages and at sporting events." Wow. It gives you a picture of what they do and tells you why it's worth doing.

Talk about the why. Most mission statements are all statement and no mission. The whole point is to say why you're doing what you're doing. What makes you care? Look at the start of Johnson & Johson's famous credo: "Our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses, and patients, mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services." Well, okay, that's worth getting out of bed for. Compare that with ExxonMobil's. Did you feel that? A little part of your soul just died, reading that.

So you've seen why bad mission statements happen and two tips for making yours different.  And in the meantime, let me challenge you to do the impossible: Write a mission statement that means something. And I'll give you a hint: If it contains the word "solution," you're not there yet. Thanks for watching.

For More on this topic: Download this document Chip and I developed: "5 Tips for a Sticky Strategic Vision." Here's a funny and illuminating review of a book on Mission Statements. My opinion is that most organizations would benefit more from setting a clear, ambitious goal than from crafting the perfect mission statement. On that front, check out Collins and Porras's work on setting a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal)—here's the original piece (for free) and a helpful overview with lots of examples. (Bonus: here are some audio resources from the guru Jim Collins himself.) And, for inspiration: The J&J Credo. (Many observers credit the Credo with helping to shape J&J's admirable response to the Tylenol-poisoning crisis in the 1980s.)