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Some people have missions. The rest have mission statements

Apr 11, 2011 Business Daily, Strategy

“Steve Jobs is famous for having said, “I want to make a ding in the universe.” Walt Disney, for having said of Disneyland, “I just want it to look like nothing else in the world.” Springsteen said, “More than anything else — more than fame or wealth or even happiness — I just wanted to be great.” Now these are mission statements. They yearn. They cry. They’re unequivocal. And they’re the product of the soul — the product of a passion for living and building and creating. They’re not the product of a writing exercise. ”

DAN PALLOTTA Harvard Business Review (31 January 2011)

Dan Pallotta’s recent question, quoted above, may seem odd: do you have a mission or a mission statement? That question is both profound and necessary.

Take it from me: most of you have mission statements, not missions. What’s the difference? To understand, check whether the following scenario has ever happened to you…

Some time ago your CEO looked at your tired old mission statement and said it needed a rewrite. So you called in some kind of consultant who took you on a retreat somewhere nice, where the organization’s top dogs sat in breakout groups under trees and discussed what your organization was really about and what it stood for. You had long debates and split many hairs about the difference between ‘mission’ and vision’ and ‘purpose’ and ‘values’.

You combined the output of many different groups and found a form of words that was least offensive. Your consultant polished that up for you and presented it back to your team a few weeks later. You all clapped. The ‘statement’ was then taken to your board who also clapped but also had some constructive suggestions; particularly that you should not forget the part about “providing excellent returns to shareholders.”

After much final tweaking and twiddling you finally had yourself a mission statement. You now got in touch with your branding agency who added some nice visuals and created some lovely picture frames, banners and website graphics for you. You were happy.

Recently, however, you attended a competitor’s product launch, and noticed that their mission statement looked remarkably similar to yours…

That, sadly, is what most organizations endure when they want to define and communicate their mission. They go through a stilted, pointless, expensive, time-consuming process of wordplay. They undergo groupthink and creativity by committee. And they produce the sort of lame, banal, meaningless, catch-all, generic statements that we see all around us.

The other option is to actually have a mission you believe in! One that makes you wake up excited every morning. One that you infect everyone in your organization with. One that you ‘live’ every day of your life and that is exhibited in your organization every day. As Pallotta pointed out, missions are what Jobs and Springsteen and Disney have. The rest of us just have half-hearted statements.

If you actually have a mission, writing it as a statement is child’s play. All you have to do is articulate it as simply and concisely as possible. It’s not the statement you’re interested in, after all – it’s the mission. A mission is lived and pursued and fulfilled obsessively every day – it’s what you do, not what’s written.

The reason most people struggle with this is that they don’t really have a mission at all. They do what they do for deadly dull reasons: to make money, to get status, to be seen to be successful, to get applause. Yawn. Those who want to “put a ding in the universe”, overturn the industry, break all the rules, think the unthinkable – those people have missions. The rest have statements.

As Pallotta pointed out: “Nelson Mandela didn’t have a mission statement for creating a free South Africa. But man, was he on a mission.”

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