"The Mission Thing"

The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.
-- Peter Drucker

Fair warning: This is a post about semantics. For those who feel that the words we choose to describe something are less important than the concepts they represent and the actions they entail, this is probably not a post for you.

I'm no purist, I think it's great that language adapts and evolves. However, despite the word's negative connotations, I'm also a fan of jargon: technical and narrowly defined terms that facilitate rapid and accurate exchange of knowledge. (And as an aside, the use of language to deliberately exclude outsiders is better defined as "argot" or "cant".)

The trigger for this is David Griffith's post about how to write a mission statement. It's a worthy post, and the exercise he advocates is useful and helpful to organisations but, well ... what he describes isn't a mission statement in my opinion. But explaining why is a little involved.

It's true that "mission" and "vision" are two of the most overused and clichéd terms in the average leader's toolbox. But even if poorly implemented, they both have a noble intent. By succinctly describing aspirational versions of an organisation, it becomes easier for employees to align their actions to the outcomes desired by organisational leaders (should they wish to do so -- a whole other topic which I shall leave aside).

But what is entailed by a mission or vision statement? I find that the knowquestion G-CHECKS framework helps me think through these questions:

  • A mission statement defines the ultimate goal of the organisation and the rationale for pursuing these goals. Critically, it needs to be at least theoretically achievable. For example, missionaries have a simple mission statement "to convert all non-believers to the religion X and save them from the consequences of their non-belief". Put another way, a mission statement defines the aims of an organisation by binding its goals (what) to its objectives (why).
  • A vision statement by contrast, defines the kind of organisation that is sought. It sets desired parameters of operation: decision-making principles, and the culture it seeks to normalise in support of its objectives. Vision describes an aspirational design for an organisation.

Combining mission and vision statements leaves two aspects unaddressed: the organisational strategies that will be deployed in support of proximate goals (things to be achieved on the way to ultimate goals), and the specific roles and responsibilities of staff. However, these are better addressed through other means, since they are a specific response to a contextual situation, and not intrinsic to the organisation's identity and purpose.

Let's now evaluate the four mission statements cited by David Griffiths and compare their alignment against these definitions:

  1. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before. (Star Trek, The Next Generation)
    I actually think this one nails "mission" pretty well. The "what" is "to explore and seek out new life", and the "why" is "to boldly go where no one has gone before". And even though it is a "continuing" mission, it's easy to evaluate whether the "what" is being met at any point in time.
  2. Our purpose is to enable individuals and businesses to manage financial risk. We provide insurance products and services tailored to meet the specific and ever-changing financial risk exposures facing our customers. We build value for our investors through the strength of our customers’ satisfaction and by consistently producing superior operating results. (American Financial Group)
    There's always a tension in organisations that operate to generate profit. Is profitable operation a means for the objectives of the organisation to be met, or is it the end in itself? This mission statement includes a strategic element ("tailored insurance products and services") which detracts from its focus. Perhaps they thought that the objective of "delivering investor value" (ie making money) through the goal of "enabling individuals and businesses to manage financial risk" was too brazen?
  3. Our goal is to be a superior investment for our shareholders through the production, transmission & distribution of electricity, natural gas and natural gas liquids to customers in the United States (Dynergy)
    This mission statement is at least clear. Not a very inspirational mission statement, it has to be said, but as a customer of Dynergy, you know where you stand.
  4. Continuously design, develop and deliver accounting services that help our clients achieve their goals. We do this by investing in relationships, knowledge, skills and experience that cement our position as trusted advisors within our communities.
    And finally to the statement developed by David. I would argue that this is actually a "strategy in a nutshell" more than a mission statement. The goal is to "help our clients achieve their goals", but why is this important? If it's more than money, you could talk about "improving financial literacy" which is a more service-oriented approach. To "design, develop, and deliver accounting services" is a strategy, as is "investing in relationships, knowledge, skills, and experience". Lastly, to be "trusted advisors within our community" is a principle of operation rather than an objective, and is probably better suited to a vision statement.

In many of these cases, I would simply drop the mission statement. Having a vision for making their organisation a place they want to work, and strategies to make that vision happen are critical. But at the end of the day, mission statements are best reserved for, well, missions. There's nothing wrong with running a business to make money, but trying to dress this up in noble reasons is likely to come off as wishy-washy at best and straight-up hypocritical at worst.

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