Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It

Pick up a strategic plan. Any one. I’m not particularly fussed with whose, or from what sector.

Now open it. I guarantee that somewhere inside, probably pretty early on, you are going to find a mission statement.

Read it. And ask yourself, “What does this tell you?” What have you learned that is specific, that is unique, that is special about this particular organization? What does it do to define and shape your perceptions of who they are, what they do and what they stand for?

The tragic thing is that, in the vast majority of cases, the answer to all of the above questions is probably something along the lines of, “Not much.”

Let me share an example with you. I have hundreds, but I’ll pick one specific one that came across my radar just last week. Stratford is a municipality near to where I live, and they have just in the past few months released their new strategic plan–which unsurprisingly also contains their new mission statement. Here’s how it reads:

“To provide services to support a sustainable, caring community with exceptional quality of life.”

As you might imagine—and the lead up is probably a pretty good giveaway—I have a few problems with this statement. Well, more than a few. To begin with, it’s indescribably vague. Looking at the statement in isolation, it’s difficult to even tell what kind of organization we are exploring. There is a focus on community, but that could be anything from a municipality to a hospital to a long-term care home to a not-for-profit. It could even describe a volunteer group.

There also isn’t a clear picture of the nature of the organization, or of the services that it provides. There are few organizations that wouldn’t sign up for being sustainable, or caring, or supporting quality of life. Take out the word “community” and you’ve got the recipe for a generic statement that could apply to almost any organization.

The test of this is by looking at the opposite meaning of the statement. Take the opposite of what is written here, and you get “To provide services that support an unsustainable, uncaring community with an abysmal quality of life.” There is—that I’m aware of—no organization on the planet that would sign up for that. We have a statement that is pretty universally applicable and desirable to most organizations, without in any way stating what is unique or different about this particular organization.

The purpose of a mission statement is to describe the purpose of the organization. It states—as clearly and specifically as possible—the reason the organization exists. In doing so, it puts a stake in the ground that distinctly characterizes what is important and special about the organization.

There are a few reasons why this is an important thing to have. The first is in strategic planning. If we’re clear about who we are and what we want to become (and I’ll tackle vision statements next), then we have something to serve as a clear test of our strategic plan when we get there. Do the goals, objectives and priorities resonate for who we are and our mission? Do they move us forward to where we want to go, while still staying true to who we are?

Another reason we want and need a good mission statement is that it helps to attract people to the organization. That includes not just customers and clients, but also employees. A good mission statement will allow people to evaluate and assess whether that purpose resonates for them. It helps to decide whether this is an organization that we want to know and respect, want to deal with and do business with or want to work for.

There’s a flip side to attracting people for whom the organization resonates, though. And that’s signalling what the organization does not stand for. A really good mission statement does this by being clear about not just what is important and valued, and also be making what isn’t valued and supported. In essence, it helps us to understand “Here’s who we are as an organization; if this works for you, then you’re going to love working with us.” By the same token, it also signals, “And if this doesn’t work for you, then we’re probably not a good fit.”

This is true for any type of organization. But I used a municipal example to start with, so I’m going to carry on in that vein. In the specific case of a municipality, the mission statement involves identifying just what kind of city or town or region they represent. Think about places you’ve visited in the last little while. You may have driven through an village of quaint shops and restaurants that you adored. Or had drinks in the city centre of a bustling metropolis, with throngs of people, cars and high rises. Perhaps you rode a bike through rolling hills of farms animated by more cows and sheep then there are people.

Not all places are created equally. Not all places are equal. What characterizes the places that you love, and that you would want to live in? And what describes the places you would least want to call home? In defining what we care about in a home, thinking about what we don’t want is as important as what we do want. Some don’t want traffic and density. Others do; they want to be in the thick of it, with rampant choice of shopping, dining, nightlife and entertainment. Some can’t stand quiet and remoteness, while others might aspire to a solitary farmhouse with fields for as far as the eye can see.

We implicitly know and recognize that places are different. We can characterize what those differences are, whether in terms of scenery, amenities, traffic, people, landscape or types of homes. And yet, all too often the mission statements that describe places are vague, general and all-encompassing. Rather than saying, “This is who we are, what we value and the kind of lifestyle we offer,” instead we get, “We’re trying to be all things to all people.”

And that, to be specific, is where most mission statements (and, if I’m honest, strategic plans) go wrong. They try to be inclusive. They try to be non-offensive. They try to appeal to everyone. There’s a political motive there; we don’t want to offend. But we do ourselves a disservice when we try to be something we are not. And we do others a disservice when we aren’t clear about what we stand for and value, and what we don’t.

And so what might a good mission statement look like? If we don’t want vague, then how can we get more specific? How do we signal who we are, and also help people to understand what we’re not?

Let’s go back to our original example, Stratford. Stratford is a city nearly smack in the middle of south-western Ontario. It is home to a population of about 31,000, so it’s not big. But it’s big enough. And it’s principally known for three things: Pork. The Stratford Shakespearean Festival. And for being the birthplace of Justin Bieber.

Stratford is known for pork because it’s home to the Ontario Pork Congress. While a city, it is surrounded by rural farmland. Drive 15 minutes in any direction, and all you can see is barns and fields. It’s also a cultural hub, and the presence of the Stratford Festival makes it the destination for hundreds of thousands of theatre goers every year, with performances on three stages. Because of the Festival, there is also a thriving hospitality industry, with exceptional restaurants, a variety of accommodations from luxury hotels to quaint B&Bs, and a wide spectrum of shops. And the presence of Justin Bieber is a tourism draw in its own right; the local museum has a display that is literally mecca to legions of teenage girls the world over.

All of this activity means the City enjoys a strong quality of life compared to other centres. There is a vibrant cultural life that goes far beyond Shakespeare, and the City is a magnet for artists of all disciplines. There is a diverse commercial and industrial sector. The region is known for entrepreneurism and innovation, particularly but not exclusively in the agricultural sector. The household median income in Stratford is $84,702, which compares favourably with the provincial median of $91,089 and is far higher than the surrounding area. It is a great place to have a great quality of life.

All of the above information can be found easily enough. For anyone that lives nearby—and for that matter, for a lot of people in souther Ontario—many of the features of Stratford is known, at least on an intuitive level. There is a “feel” that people have for Stratford, just as there is a “feel” to any place that you get to know at least a little well.

And yet none of this information shows up in the mission statement, or is even implied. There is no sense of culture, no feel for the economic vibrancy and entrepreneurial vibe of the place, and no real indication of what kind of community they are striving for.

So what might a different mission statement actually look like. As a thought experiment when trying to explain my frustration with their mission statement to my wife, I came up with (after a minute or so of reflection) the following:

“Stratford is a vibrant, cultural city that attracts and celebrates diversity, welcomes and embraces those who care about and contribute to their community, and combines a rural heritage with a commitment to entrepreneurism, innovation and a strong social conscience.”

Is that perfect? No. For starters, it comes from my brain, and not the result of a collective exercise (although often it’s the collective exercise that winds up producing the most generic of statements, that try to appeal to everyone equally). There are some things from my description of Stratford that highlights, and others that it ignores (most specifically Justin Bieber, but—no offence to the Biebs—you don’t want to be defining your sense of place around one person).

But it goes a long way to providing a sense of place. It identifies the kind of people that would find Stratford welcoming, and draws lines around those things that are culturally important and valued within the community. This goes a long way to also signalling to people that don’t value those things that Stratford might not be your sort of place.

Mission statements are critical linchpins to the strategic planning process. But they can only do their job when they are meaningful, relevant and specific enough to give teeth to the definition of why the organization exists and what it is there to do. Vague has no place here. Non-specific references that appeal to all audiences undermine what mission statements are intended to do, and also mean that we’ve got no real means of testing whether the rest of the strategic plan makes sense. If the mission statement appeals to no one—or everyone—then so will the strategic plan.

Leave a Comment