Two decades ago, when LERN was going through a significant transition and dealing with substantial growth, the Board of Directors tackled the daunting task of revising the organizational mission structure.
It seemed reasonable enough at the time, but it became an exercise that that lasted over many months. At least one board member joked about quitting his day job and becoming a full time consultant on how to write mission statements. While the task is essential and may seem straightforward at first blush, there is nothing easy about it.
Indeed, creating a good mission statement is one of the most challenging tasks an organization can undertake. It requires strong leadership skills on the part of those managing the project, involvement of multiple stakeholders, an ability to build consensus and ultimately coming to agreement on the reason for an organization’s existence.
Building a mission statement is akin to the blind men and the elephant. Depending upon where they came into contact with the enormous beast each had his own firm opinion of just what an elephant was like. The same thing is true of organizational mission. It all depends upon where you sit, how you experience the work of the organization, and how you perceive the goals of your efforts. Like the blind men’s perceptions, each stakeholder is right about at least part of the mission. Putting the parts together is the challenge.
Below are some of the lessons learned by LERN board and staff in developing the organization’s mission statement:
Mission Statements are multi-dimensional
One reason it is difficult for organizations to come to consensus about their mission statement is that they often perceive it to be one dimensional. A good mission statement should define not only what your organization does for customers, but for employees, the larger institution, and the community. If you are writing a mission statement for your department or division, it should reflect the vision and mission of the entire institution and demonstrate how your mission supports the institutional mission. It should be a statement of not just your goals, but of your culture and ethics.
Your mission statement is functional
Your mission statement has an important purpose within your organization. It is the defining statement that provides you with the tools you need to help both internal and external customers who you are. It should be the reference point for developing your business goals and objectives. Your mission statement should guide your decision-making and keep you on track with your primary purpose.
Your mission statement should be short and direct. It is not just a bunch of words that sound nice. Your mission statement tells people who you are, what motivates you, why you exist, what you want to achieve, and what kind of work environment you strive for. It is an honest and intimate description of what makes you tick.
Ask the right questions
Start your process by asking the right questions. This will help you organize your thinking and focus your ideas so that you can express them clearly and succinctly:
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Why are you in business? It seems basic, but writing it down can help you clarify for yourself and others why your work is important.
- What excites you about your work? What makes you want to come to work every day? By capturing this, you will be better able to communicate your excitement about what you do to others and to motivate them as well as yourself.
- Who are your customers? What do you do for them? How do you make their lives better? Why should they care about what you do?
- What kind of environment do you want to create for your employees? How can you support those who support your organization? What do you do that makes people want to be part of your effort?
- Do you have some special attributes (e.g. You are supportive of working remotely. You have flexible work rules, etc?).
- How do you use technology to make yourself more effective?
- Other questions that will help you define who you are and what you do.
Don’t forget your USP
Your unique selling proposition—your USP—is what makes you different from others who do what you do. Your USP makes you stand out from the crowd and tells others how you are different. This is critical to your success. You don’t want to be just like everyone else. Your mission statement should tell people how you benefit them in ways others don’t. For example, you could have a mission statement that says:
“To provide support professional development to meet the needs of today’s workforce;” or “to provide recreational activities and events for the Emerald City.” That sounds good. Right? Yes, it sounds good, but it’s not special. Define yourself in terms of what you do better and differently from others in your business. This will validate you in the eyes of your customers, your institution and your community.
As other people
Getting input from others stakeholders—your staff, your customers, your colleagues can help give you perspective about your mission statement. Even if others are not decision-makers, the feedback and perspectives they offer can help you focus your thinking and refine the statement that you craft.
Keep it short
Mission statements should be short; only a paragraph or two. Some are even a sentence or two. Avoid buzz words and catch-phrases that will either go out of style or fail to communicate anything of substance or are so common that they don’t say much about you they isn’t being said about others like you. Be specific, craft a statement that will remind you and others of who you are, what you aspire to, and what kind of organization you are.
For some examples of well-crafted mission statements, and tips on how to write them, click the links below.