“What is a ‘Mission’? (Think Progress, not Posters)” By Mike Fernandes, StrategyMakers

May 20, 2011 | Corporate Member News

Jesus had one. Michael Jordan does too. And so does (or did) Bill Gates, Luciano Pavarotti, Elvis, Mother Theresa and most other people we look up to in some fashion or another. Would you agree with me that all of these individuals have demonstrated a very clear sense of purpose in their lives? 

What about internationally recognized organizations like Coca-Cola or The Red Cross, without even reading their corporate literature can you picture in your own mind the core mission behind their actions? 

A “mission” is simply a clear and focused sense of direction and purpose. And understanding your direction and purpose is infinitely more important than trying to craft the perfect statement to describe it. 

There are countless books written about how to write vision and mission statements. And organizations big and small spend a lot of time and money trying to develop crafty statements that they can turn into posters and witty tag lines. In my view, attempting to write these formal vision and mission statements, while important at some point, too often become a stumbling block for leaders and teams. 

Here’s a challenge for you…take a blank piece of paper and write down, straight from the gut, what you are working towards, your purpose. Go ahead. Try it right now. Use as many words as you need and don’t over-think the phrases or try to be fancy. Bullet points are fine. (You can do this exercise for both your own personal/professional mission or for your business/organization.) 

Now read over the words you put down. How did you do? Do the words capture your inner thoughts accurately? If yes, keep that piece of paper somewhere where you can refer to it often. That is your “true north”. Check in with these words regularly to make sure you don’t get distracted and off-course. 

If what you wrote down on paper doesn’t quite capture what you believe is your purpose and direction then you are like most of us. It is an incredible challenge to put these kinds of thoughts down on paper. (That’s why we admire brilliant writers, poets and songwriters!) Somewhere between our gut our brain and our writing hand, things get muddied by our own baggage and memories, fear and anxieties, and an assorted mix of other barriers. 

Now imagine the challenge of trying to do this type of exercise in a group setting and formal meeting. How much more difficult is it to get a group of smart people, with different personalities/egos, skill sets, responsibilities and personal circumstances to craft organizational mission statements that they all agree and buy into wholeheartedly? 

Here’s a trick I’ve learned in my work…don’t confuse understanding your purpose and direction with the act of writing a “vision” or “mission statement”. Vision and mission statements are just one format for formally communicating your purpose and direction. Contrary to what you may read, editing and crafting these statements should not be the starting point of your strategic planning. 

I’ve worked with many groups, small and large, for-profit and not-for-profit, volunteer-based and professional and most of these groups tell me that their mission and vision statements are inadequate, incomplete and/or incorrect. Rather than try to make editorial improvements (which is sure to derail any meaningful strategic planning session), we dig deeper, looking past the formal mission and vision statements to define that elusive sense of organizational purpose and direction.

Bottom-line: Don’t spend time trying to group-write a “mission statement” as a start to your strategic planning process. Let the writers do that part later. Use your time as a group to agree to a clear and unified sense of purpose and direction, no matter how many words or bullet points it takes. Once you have that, it will be easier to work through your strategic priorities, goals and actions. (More about the strategic planning approach we use at StrategyMakers Consulting

Remember, well-crafted mission statements make for good posters but a clear and focused sense of direction and purpose makes for a unified and progress-oriented culture. Posters or progress, which one would you rather have in your business/organization? 

Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why is a fantastic resource to drive this point home. If you are in any way interested in leading a mission-centered organization, start with Simon.

A final thought…

Missions do evolve and often uncover themselves over time. Don’t get discouraged if you struggle putting your own purpose and direction into words. It’s easier to see someone’s mission in retrospect than up front. Consider this (entirely speculative and unauthorized) evolution of Michael Jordan’s “mission”… 

  • Mike as a tike – “I want to play with that ball.”
  • Little Mikey – “I want to play basketball with my friends.”
  • Mikey – “I want to play on a basketball team.”
  • Young Mike – “I want to be the best basketball player on my team.”
  • Mike the young adult – “I want to play professional basketball.”
  • Mike the man – “I want to win a championship.”
  • Mike the all-star – “I want to win the championship AND be the best basketball player in the league!”
  • Mike the legend – “I want to be the best basketball player in history.”

About Mike Fernandes, StrategyMakers

Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Building on a 18 year career, most of it in a senior management role, I now work with a growing list of organizations, entrepreneurs/small business owners, and public sector agencies to help them apply a focused and strategic approach to a wide range of activities and opportunities. My educational background includes an MBA from Manitoba’s Asper School of Business as well as an undergraduate degree in Economics and Environmental Studies from the University of Winnipeg. I also enjoy volunteering in various community organizations, coach local youth sports whenever I can, and share my experience through a number of youth leadership and entrepreneurship coaching programs.

Visit the StrategyMakers website here.

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