Those, like me, who've been around a number of political or business organizations are often cynical about mission statements. Properly constructed, though, they can help focus the people in an organization on what they're really there for.
For two days this week, a small group from the company I work for gathered to articulate what we do, what we want to be, and what principles we'll use (or have been using, without specifying them) to get there. In abstract, it might seem like an arm-wavy waste of time—why talk about what we do instead of actually doing it?
But in any organization, you should be able to say, succinctly, what it is you do, and what your organization is, or is trying to be. If not, when it comes time to make a difficult decision, you don't have a point of reference. A decade ago, I was involved in developing the mission statement of the student society at the University of B.C., where we went through a long, complex, involved, and expensive process to write few enough words that they fit on a short web page today. And those words ("To improve the quality of the educational, social, and personal lives of the students of UBC") are the core of what the society does, and (just as important) what it has always done, even when people didn't say it explicitly. Look at these other good examples:
- "To solve unsolved problems innovatively" (3M, current)
- "Become the company most known for changing the worldwide poor-quality image of Japanese products" (Sony, 1950)
- "We are going to democratize the automobile" (Ford, 1909)
- "To be the defining technology company of the 21st century" (Red Hat Linux, current)
- "This nation should dedicate itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth" (U.S. space program, 1960)
Often, people do know the principles, mission, and long-term vision of an organization, or at least think they do, but unless they're written down for reference, the various interpretations can conflict or be ignored when it really counts. The articulation and writing down were what we were trying to do this week. The hardest part is not so much the writing, but the editing: removing words, whittling down sheets and sheets of paper to a single sentence in which every word means something essential. Words are important, and it takes a lot of work to craft them. (I guess that's why I got into this writing and editing business.)
What's interesting is that several of the people I'm working with at Navarik are the same people who worked together at UBC to draft the student society mission statement in the early '90s. We saw how important it was then, and again now. I hope what we produce will still be valid and inspiring in a decade or two.