Do You Really Need a Mission Statement?

by John Persico

Do You Really Need a Mission Statement?We have all been told countless times that a “mission statement” is critical to the success of an organization. I am sure you have heard that “if you don’t know where you are going, any direction will do.” However, the evidence and research shows that many successful companies do not have either a business plan or a mission statement. How many times have you seen a mission statement that said “We want to be the best” or “We highly value our employees”? We tend to just take these for granted. They are generic and vanilla statements and most employees will simply ignore them. In fact, in even the best companies, the mission statement (if it exists) is virtually unknown by most employees if not most of management. I have visited dozens of companies wherein most of management could not begin to tell you what their mission or vision is for their organization.

In my seminars on strategic planning, I have conducted numerous debates between proponents of mission statements and opponents. The score is somewhat tied at about 50-50. Many times the judges select the arguments of the proponents but equally as often the opponents win the debate? Why? How can so much wisdom exhorting the power of a mission statement be wrong? When one adds the time to develop such statements in planning workshops attended by senior executives, there seems to be even less justification for spending precious hours and resources on these statements. My partner and I have developed a more balanced view of the value of such statements and when and how they should be developed and deployed.

Let’s look at three possibilities:

  1. The mission statement is in the head of the founder.
  2. The mission statement is boring and unmemorable.
  3. The mission statement is inspiring and motivating.

In the first case, you probably do not need a mission statement as long as the founder or leader is at the helm of the organization. However, what if every employee also had a “personal” mission statement for their role in the organization? What if their mission statement aligned with the founders’ mission statement? Every employee coming to work each day would have a purpose linked to the overall purpose of the organization but inspired by their own goals and related to what they personally wanted to accomplish. Would you mind having a workforce filled with such people. Then why keep the founders statement or vision a secret? Why not expand the entire concept of creating a vision to a vision and mission for each employee in the organization?

The mission statement is boring and unmemorable. This second situation applies to about 80 percent of the missions that I have seen. Cookie cutter statements are not going to inspire anyone. Worse, they fail to provide any strategic direction. What is missing in these statements is imagination. Think of the imagination that inspired the Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, the IPOD, the Moon Landing, and Facebook. I am not talking about “Pie in the Sky” type thinking and planning. I am talking about words, visions and missions that inspire and excite us. Adventures and goals that take us out of our mundane everyday lives and help make us part of something bigger than ourselves. We all want to be part of something great, something memorable. Whether it is simply by supporting our sports team, developing a new innovative product or joining the church choir, we need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. However, we must believe that this “bigger’ thing is going somewhere exciting or has the potential to be a winner. It has to be bigger than we are. It has to embody deep seated hopes and dreams that are inherent in every human being. As Kelly Cutrone , the writer and fashion publicist has said in her new book: “Normal Gets You Nowhere.” Normal is average. Average is middle of the road. Do you aspire to be an average company with average employees? If so, you will probably not survive long in today’s marketplace.

The third possibility is what we want to create. A mission statement that is inspiring, memorable and actionable. We want a mission statement that will embody the hopes and dreams of the founder and the employees that are hired by the organization. Consider some of the following statements:

  • Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
  • I believe this nation should commit itself, to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
  • Henry Ford’s mission was a simple, inexpensive vehicle affordable by ALL!
  • Wal-Mart “To give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people.”
  • Mary Kay Cosmetics “To give unlimited opportunity to women.”
  • 3M “To solve unsolved problems innovatively”

Each of these statements is inspiring and memorable. But even better, each of these statements invites you to take part in some endeavor that is clearly exciting and worthwhile. However, before you start to think about developing or changing your organizations mission statement you need to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are you inspired by your company mission or vision? Why not?
  • What would it take for you to be more inspired?
  • Would putting time and energy into developing an inspiring mission statement help you and your employees have more energy and focus? Why or why not?
  • Do you self-inspire? Do you have your own personal vision and mission? Why not?
  • Do you have the imagination to create a great mission statement for your organization?

Too many organizations have a myth of innovation and creativity when in reality they have become moribund and bureaucratic. They lack the ability to think out of the box, because the entire organization structure is one great matrix of boxes and chimneys and silos. From the day an employee is hired, they are put into a box by their job description, their title, their department and the policies and procedures that govern everyday organization life in their company. Is it any wonder that when a mission statement is created, it is lackluster and vanilla? It is difficult if not impossible to be creative and imaginative and think out of a box when your entire daily existence is to be part of and fit into one large box. Thus, many organizations need help to be creative and imaginative. Asking the typical manager and employee to create an innovative and inspiring mission statement is like asking the fox to take good care of the hen house. “It ain’t a gonna happen.”

Let’s look briefly to see how imagination is related to innovation and how innovation is related to value. The following picture borrows from several other models but is unique in that we believe imagination must come before innovation and that imagination is the spark that ignites everything.

John Persico Framework

We can explain this model using a fairly well documented example. The Wright Brothers developed a machine that would fly both guided by and carrying a human being. Rebecca Lewis “Tar Heel Junior Historian, fall, 2003) writes that Orville and Wilbur studied birds and dreamed of flying. “They made that dream a reality with hard work and experimentation but imagination created the idea and provided the inspiration.” Following their dreams, they created several prototypes and tested numerous theories and possibilities. They encountered many problems along the way and found they had to rewrite several aeronautical theories that were plain wrong. Once they developed a machine that would fly, they continued to innovate the machine until it was reliable. John Foster in his blog “Is that innovation or invention” notes that the Wright Brothers did not invent the airplane but they continued to innovate and improve the flight controls and technology until flying was fairly reliable. The rest of the model is fairly self-explanatory. Most of us would agree that flying provides both products and services that revolutionized the world. In this there was value and benefits for humanity.

Well, you have some tips and ideas here. If you were expecting a formula for a great mission statement, we are sorry. There is no such formula. A great mission statement comes from passion, imagination, focus and to some extent failure and experimentation. It is an iterative process. My partner and I use the PDCA cycle as a means of summarizing this. P is for Play. D is for Design. C is for Create and A is for Activate. It is a cycle that is never ending and always being refined and improved. Apply this cycle to your mission statement and see where it takes you. Start with play. Let your imagination go.

  • What is your mission?
  • What is your vision?
  • Where do your dreams and passions lie?
  • Can you fulfill them?

You can if we you are willing to endlessly cycle your activities.

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John PersicoDr. John Persico is a partner with Ms. Peg Peck-Chapman in the Minnesota Consulting Alliance. Dr. Persico has been in management consulting since 1986. He has worked with organizations in both the profit and non-profit sector.

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  1. Mission statements are not what propel organizations to greatness, it is shared purpose! If it is a statement it is written on the heart, not framed on the wall. Too many organizations waste time wordsmithing instead of inspiring. Too many are long on strategy and short on culture…and, in the words of one senior executive, “Culture will eat strategy for lunch everyday.”

    I bet there was not mission statement on Mother Teresa’s wall, or Martin Luther King Richard Branson does not get up everyday eager to review his mission statement…he directs his heart and soul toward a dream he invites others to join.

  2. Excellent points, John. I do believe that every organization needs a mission – when done right, and there are countless resources on ways to do that. I’ve always believed that it’s important to answer these questions:
    – What will we offer?
    – For whom?
    – Why?
    – What makes us unique?
    And from my experience what happens before and after a mission is articulated is at least as important as the mission statement itself – before, a process that builds ownership; after, continual reinforcement, plus checks to determine if an organization is true to its mission and values. That’s the “trueness” factor that I cover in my book Navigating Integrity (https://tinyurl.com/2e3yvny)

    Your innovation perspective is important because it it important that institutions not confuse ways they have accomplished their mission in the past with the mission itself. To use a tired analogy, extinct buggy whip manufacturers would be in a different place now if they had defined their mission as “providers of vehicle starting technology.”

  3. I can see both sides of this, at this time, I wonder Why a Mission Statement? – early on in my career (over 30 yrs ago), folks were eager to see the ‘mission’ and with good facilitation could see their role in working towards this mission. After many years of seeing leadership use the mission as a way to manipulate productivity, I am quite jaded.
    I am no longer a proponent of the corporate mission statement, unless there is evidence that all leadership have operationalized that statement in their own leadership actions. How do they speak about it? What is the evidence that this mission is used to make decisions about employees, policies, clients, customers, constituents?
    My recent experience: the mission statement is used as window dressing – transparent, dubious.
    As I said, I am jaded.
    On the other hand, I have seen people motivated by their org mission because it resonates with their own personal mission, and they keep on moving towards the accomplishment of that personal mission – these folks are in right spot at the right time. I thinks that’s rare aat this time in corporate life. What do you think?

  4. Barry Johansen

    I love Chips quote: “Culture will eat strategy for lunch everyday!”

    Personally I’m not convinced that printing the statement on the wall, on coffee mugs, and little key chains does a lot of good. However I do believe the process of creating a mission statment can be of value IF the organization can make the statment operational, use it for guidance, and build the essential components into the organizational culture.

    Two examples come to mind. Some time ago I worked at Medtronic. The mission statment included “alleviate pain, restore health and extend life.” The company ‘motto’ (sort of the shorthand for the mission statment) simply read “toward man’s full life.” This is all well and good but the real value comes from how the organizational culture is managed to instill these aspirations and values into the day to day operation of the organization. Anyone who has been to a MDT holiday party understands the power of connecting the words of the mission statement to the profound effect Medtronic products have on people. It’s the culture and the events to maintain the culture that keep employees motivated and willing to go to extra lengths to fulfill the mission.

    Another example (and my memory is a bit foggy on this), I believe the original mission statment of Control Data Corporation was something like “profitably meet societial needs.” Nice sounding and I believe it was sincere, but how do you use it as a guide? A bit broad I’d opine! Those of us old enough to recall may remember CDC as an outstanding organization that lost focus in many ways.

    Of course, there is the classic disconnect to consider: Enron’s mission statment included: Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.

    Culture eats strategy indeed!

  5. My experience has shown that managers have a hard time formulate a mission statement because it requires them to define what the company is/does/wants to be and also what it is no/does not do/does not want to be. To many managers I have worked with find that a mission statement restricts their freedom to act. Althoug I can understand their fear, I tend to disagree. I believe that a mission statement provides a basic principle that makes strategic, but also operational decisions, easier and more consistent.

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