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Could you reduce your mission statement to 8 words?

Nov 15, 2010 Business Daily, Strategy

“Most companies, regardless of their sectors, have a mission statement. And most are awash in jargon and marble-mouthed pronouncements. Worse still, these gobbledy-gook statements are often forgotten by, misremembered, or flatly ignored by frontline employees.
To combat this, (Kevin) Starr insists that companies he funds can express their mission statement in under eight words. They also must follow this format: “Verb, target, outcome.” Some examples: “Save endangered species from extinction” and “Improve African children’s health.”

ERIC HELLWEG blogs.hbr.org (22 October 2010)

Don’t even get me started on mission statements. Most of them are wordy, jargony, silly and utterly useless. As I have written on this page before: “Have mission statements, by all means; but only if you can make them short, punchy, clear, meaningful and interesting. Otherwise, light a large fire.”

Over the past few weeks I have come across two sensible contributions to the topic of mission statements. The first was said by the renowned Henry Mintzberg at Strathmore Business School: “If a hospital needs a mission statement, it needs to close down!” You know what he means: most organisations that have a clear and compelling and obvious reason they exist, really don’t need to spell it out. The Nairobi Hospital treats the ailing; Kenya Red Cross saves lives; KWS protects wildlife. It is obvious. If they need elaborate mission statements, it is for a different purpose than just spelling out what they do.

In the private sector, however, mission statements take on a different sheen. Most of them are a deliberate smokescreen, an attempt to divert attention from the primary reason for the existence of the corporation, which is usually to enrich shareholders and senior executives. And so we see the tortured statements that are commonplace, which claim to bring “magic”, “happiness”, “joy”, “peace” or “security” to the world. They are meant to soothe, assuage, and reassure customers, employees, governments and the rest that the corporation in question is a force for good for the many, not just a force for enrichment of the few.

But most such statements are so badly put together, so obviously full of artifice and hot air, that they don’t even fulfil that PR role. They are just banal and forgettable. They are neither believed nor remembered.

That is where Kevin Starr, quoted in the HBR blogs in the excerpt shown, comes in. Starr is executive director of the Mulago Foundation, an investment channel for social entrepreneurs. He made some very illuminating remarks about mission statements at a recent conference. He said two things: eight words or fewer is all you need; and think “verb, target, outcome.” In other words, what does your organisation actually DO? What is its primary target constituency? And what is the result it most wants? Those are the essential components. All else is fluff. And it can be done in eight words.

Try it and see. Dismantle and reconstruct your own undoubtedly turgid and uninspiring mission statement now with senior colleagues. See if it even vaguely reflects “verb, target, outcome.” Now see if you can make it happen in as few words as possible.

You will find this enormously difficult, but there is a point to it. This approach will force you to focus on what really matters. It will force you to be precise. It might make you realize what your organization is, or should be, REALLY about. You might find a form of words that captures that essence, that is easy to remember, that differentiates you from others, that clarifies your purpose for employees and customers and investors. Then, you might find you have eight words worth having.

At the very least, thinking about mission statements in this way will probably make your current statement shorter, more authentic and more memorable. Try it and see…

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