After several sessions of wrangling and wordsmithing, your company's mission statement is ready to roll. There's just one thing: it's not inspiring.

Many mission statements fail to "stick"; they are often boring, banal, even farcical. A Boston University survey showed that 70 percent of management teams believe their employees are inspired by their mission, but only 27 percent of employees agreed with that sentiment.

Clearly, there's a disconnect.

The time for next-level mission statements is now

The world, and work culture, has evolved since mission statements became an entrenched part of corporate protocol--but their purpose and the way we approach them has not.

The traditional process for creating a mission statement is tricky. It presents a minefield of disparate allegiances, political calculations, and power dynamics. It can be polarizing. I once hired a conflict mediator to help.

And even if employees are included in the process, they are smart enough to see through the spin. Crowdsourced doesn't mean co-authored, and employees understand the difference between being asked to contribute and truly leaving a mark.

Millennials need meaning (and so do the rest of us)

The new and improved mission statement must go beyond lip service to spark a message that's aspirational as much as it's inspirational, highlighting why employees choose your company over others. Because let's face it, in today's economy Millennials view the hiring process as a two-way street. And when they're not happy, they fearlessly move on, looking for meaning in a job just as much as an alignment of skills and salary.

According to a 2015 Deloitte survey, 6 out of 10 Millennials cited their company's sense of purpose as part of the reason they chose their job. That same study also found, however, that as many as 28 percent of Millennials believe their talents aren't being tapped by their current employers.

The Beatles didn't have a mission statement

If you don't like mission statements, you'll like this: The Beatles didn't have one.

Maybe the band was onto something? Artists are driven by an insatiable desire to create. It gets them out of bed, and keeps them going when times are tough. Their drive is their mission. They make a statement with each new work they produce, allowing it to speak for itself and leaving others to explain it.

Business, I don't have to tell you, is different. You must explain everything first, and then act on it (also known as "strategy and planning"). Creating and maintaining predictability is critical. A mission statement cuts through the din to help a company legitimize, elevate, and rationalize itself.

The problem is that it doesn't address intrinsic motivation--the kind that keeps artists pushing and pushing, and can help your employees do the same.

Make innovating the mission statement your mission

When I worked at Frog Design, a global design and strategy firm, our founder, the industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger, had crafted a one-page manifesto in place of a mission statement. He chose this format because it articulates the philosophy behind a movement and advocates triggering one by challenging the status quo. It was pure passion, devoid of any strategic calculation.

I saw how a distinctive and firm point of view can truly inspire people; they are galvanized when they are a part of something different, something greater than themselves, like a movement.

So how to do that?

  • Free yourself from research: You don't need a comprehensive three-month discovery phase with stakeholder interviews. Replace the marathon with a sprint. A snapshot often captures the essence of your business better than a feature length documentary.
  • Embody your mission statement before you articulate it: Create an event that brings your company's core attributes to life. Afterwards, describe what it was like; this will help steer away from boilerplate copy.
  • Collaborate with artists: Allow one or more to document what you do and write a story. You don't have to use the output as the statement itself; it provides a perspective that helps shape the copy you use.
  • The democratic approach doesn't work--at first: A good place to start is the founder's vision and story, but this doesn't work well as a team exercise (trust me). The next step is to invite employees to bring the statement to life with their feedback; keep in mind though: you can't just ask for it, you've got to use it.
  • You must make choices: A good mission statement will polarize people--in a good way. Just like your personal identity is an act of exclusion--you can't possibly be everybody's family--your company is not for everyone. It's not possible, practical, or specific enough "to improve the lives of everybody." By contrast, wanting "to revolutionize public transportation" is both an inspiring mission and threatening to your competitors.

I recently spoke with Stephen Scott Johnson, author of the forthcoming book Emergent: Ignite Purpose, Transform Culture, Make Change Stick. In it, he argues that in order for organizations to become catalysts of change and adapt to an ever-changing world, they need to initiate movements internally or become a movement itself. Imposing a mandate of change from the top down won't work because it doesn't proactively engage those on the receiving end, and they simply won't identify with it.

Global food company Danone serves as a recent example for businesses-as-movements and has repositioned itself as a "manifesto brand," involving all of its employees in the (at times beautifully messy) process and even creating the position of a Chief Manifesto Catalyst.

Let's stop viewing mission statements as a rational activity. Plenty of what we do in business must be rational and controlled, but it's only in letting go and stepping away from the confines of that thinking a mission statement can truly elevate.

Published on: Jul 11, 2017