Tuesday, November 14, 2006


(April, 2002) My attitude about mission statements has been changing.
If you’ve never gone fishing for a mission statement, you’ve really been missing out. Mission statements are frequently generated by some extended group process; Really Important Executives can often milk a mission statement for a full weekend somewhere warm and cozy.
Nowadays the vogue is to start with a vision statement, which is your picture of where your organization would be in a perfect world. It should sound vaguely noble and somehow related to what your organization actually does. “I see us making the best darn widgets in the world for happy, satisfied customers who pay us well” is a good vision statement. “I see myself cashing in some fat stock options on my way to a beach in Bimini” or “I see myself never having to sit through a meeting like this again” are not.
Once that end is in sight, we craft the mission statement. The mission statement tells what your organization is actually supposed to do. “We will serve good inexpensive food cheerfully” is a fine mission statement, as is “We will make cars that don’t suck but cost less than the GNP of Botswana.”
In other words, the mission statement is usually what your customers thought you were supposed to be doing in the first place. A good mission statement is a blindingly clear expression of the obvious. “We will print what happened in our area quickly and accurately in a newspaper.”
True, not all missions are what the customer imagines. For instance, only the naïve would continue to believe that the mission of health insurance companies is to help keep their customers healthy, when in fact it seems to be to keep their customers’ money.
I have sat through a few mission statement meetings in my life, and it is hard to escape the feeling that they were, well, kind of dopey. But most organizations really do need a mission statement, because a business of any complexity at all will always have a Department of the Clueless.
The Department of the Clueless is that wing of the organization that just plain does not know what the organization is doing.
In any school district you can find a knot of people who have no idea that schools are made to teach students; these folks find the whole school-teacher-student thing really annoying. If those darn teachers and kids would just stay home, the district would flow much more smoothly.
Business and industry have them, too. In industry, the Department of the Clueless used to commonly reside in the Human Resources department. A good HR department could suck up days of valuable employee time on all sorts of bonding and facilitating and communication enhancement empowermentization that had nothing whatsoever to do with building widgets.
Nowadays the Department of the Clueless may be found in the legal office, where they are convinced that the company’s business is to not do anything that might get them sued. This is why so many customer service departments can’t answer questions; their mission is not to serve customers, but to avoid saying anything that might reappear in court.
The Clueless are the IT people who wish employees would stop trying to use the computers to DO stuff, or the accountants who wish people would stop using office supplies. There’s no shame in a supporting role; not everyone works directly on the front lines. But the best support personnel figure out how they can make the front line workers’ jobs easier; the Clueless ask if you would mind being paid just once annually to streamline their paperwork.
The Clueless can rise to the highest echelons. I’m guessing Herb Baum never glances at a mission statement. The mission of modern execs is not to make oil or toys or soap, but to squeeze money quickly from the company.
Are the Clueless denser than the average bag of rubber mallets, or have they simply forgotten? It can be easy, I suppose, to have your vision narrow to the point that you are no longer aware of anything outside your office. Eventually your personal mission statement can become “I will get rid of whatever is stacked on my desk and make the next person who darkens my door go away as quickly as possible.”
So as silly as the mission statement business is, I have to admit that there are people who need to be reminded on a daily basis what the heck they’re doing. I used to think that mission statements were best written on nice fresh quilted Northern, but maybe a rolled up newspaper would serve better.

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