Mission statements are documents intended to serve as a summary of a business's goals and values. Their contents often reflect the fact that they are used both to enhance performance and to serve a public relations purpose. Secondary purposes aside, mission statements are usually intended as a means by which a business's ownership or management attempt to attach meaning to an organization's operations beyond profit and loss statements.
The value of the mission statement is also sometimes thought to increase with the size of an organization. Fortune contributor Andrew Serwer, for instance, contended that entrepreneurial companies of relatively small size can sometimes thrive without a mission statement or an explicit guiding principle: the business owner/leader can communicate personally with each staff member. Expansion, however, can make it more difficult for entrepreneurs to communicate efficiently with individual staff members about their future plans, their vision of the company's goals, and the values that will guide the company's operation. "A mission statement not only provides that information, but it's also the foundation for any performance-enhancement initiative," wrote Karen Adler and Paul Swiercz in Training & Development.
When produced in a thoughtful and careful manner, mission statements can be good vehicles for communicating the importance of an organization's activities and the reasons why employees should value their work there. Unfortunately, InfoWorld's Bob Lewis echoed a widespread sentiment with his contention that many of today's mission statements are produced in a formulaic, jargon-heavy manner that renders them bereft of vitality and meaning. Lewis and others argue that all too often, businesses of all shapes and sizes attach far greater weight to the mission statement's public relations function than to its value as a potential touchstone that can help the business maintain a steady course through the many obstacles and challenges of the modern business world.
Characteristics of Effective Mission Statements
Small business owners, consultants, and researchers all agree that effective mission statements generally feature most of the following characteristics:
- Simple, declarative statements—Mission statements that are cluttered with trendy buzz words and jargon rather than basic declarations of organizational goals and values tend to fall flat. Conversely, a mission that can be easily articulated is more likely to be remembered and to have resonance.
- Honest and realistic—Observers agree that it is pointless—or worse, that it can actually turn into a negative—for a business enterprise to create and publicize a mission statement if it is at odds with its known operating philosophy. A company may espouse an abiding concern for the environment in its statement of mission, but if its everyday operations reflect a callous disregard for or outright hostility to established environmental protections, the statement may merely engender or deepen employee cynicism about management and generate negative public response. In short, hypocrisy often attracts greater attention than silence.
- Communicates Expectations and Ethics—As Sharon Nelton noted in Nation's Business, a thoughtfully rendered mission statement can define not only what a company's business goals are but also the methodologies it chooses to get there. A good mission statement often includes general principles to which a business's workers are expected to adhere, and in return, includes declarations of the business's obligations to its employees, its customers, and the community in which it operates.
- Periodically Updated—Just like other business documents, mission statements can lose their vitality and relevance over time if they are not reexamined on a regular basis. Mission statements should undergo continual review and refinement to ensure that they remain fresh and useful.
Adler, Karen, and Paul Swiercz. "Taming the Performance Bell Curve." Training & Development. October 1997.
Carlino, Bill. "'Mission' accomplished?" Accounting Today. 27 February 2006.
Jenkins, Maureen. "What's Our Business? Why every employee needs to know the company's mission statement." Black Enterprise. October 2005.
Lewis, Bob. "Mission Statements: Don't Write a Word Until Your Ideas are Clear to All." InfoWorld. 29 January 1996.
Nelton, Sharon. "Put Your Purpose in Writing." Nation's Business. February 1994.
O'Hallaron, Richard, and David O'Hallaron. The Mission Primer: Four Steps to an Effective Mission Statement. Mission Inc., 2000.
Serwer, Andrew. "Lessons from America's Fastest Growing Companies." Fortune. 8 August 1994.
Stewart, Bruce A. "A New IT Vision and Mission." Computerworld. 9 January 2006.
Wordsworth, Dot. "Mind Your Language." Spectator. 22 October 2005.