How many times have you heard company mission statements which are essentially identical to this? Do you think it really conveys anything interesting to employees or managers in the company? That it motivates action?

There are several problems with this approach to direction-setting:

  • It’s not specific.
  • It’s no different from other companies.
  • It conveys no sense of priority.
  • There’s no passion.

Before I talk about how to fix this blandness, though, let’s look at different ways to approach setting a unified direction for your company. The idea is laudable: you want to get everyone aligned and excited to make decisions for the good of the business. There are several ways people approach this:

  • Purpose: The reason why the world needs your company.
  • Mission: What direction you’re headed and how you define forward progress.
  • Vision: A concrete picture of a glorious and successful future.
  • Principles or Values: Defining statements which govern why you behave the way you do.
  • Goal: Something well-defined that you’re working to accomplish and then move on.

As you can see, there’s overlap between these approaches. I wouldn’t suggest that you consider using all five, if only because it will be confusing. Usually one or two will suffice, reflecting the true power of your business for years to come.

How do you keep these visionary statements from becoming bland? When they’re created by a team, they’ll tend toward a mushy compromise. Nobody disagrees with them, because they don’t say anything challenging.

To be useful, they have to challenge. And they have to reflect what you’re actually doing.

For example, Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Before Google became a household name, that sounded audacious and unrealistic. But in fact, over the last decade, it has constantly strived to make every word a reality.

When we first noticed Google, it was a leading internet search engine that delivered advertising. Claiming that it made the world accessible and useful to users was extremely challenging. But it’s doing exactly that.

Notice that there’s no clear endpoint when Google can claim it’s done with this mission – it can sustain them for decades.

Contrast this to Habitat for Humanity’s powerful vision: “a world where housing poverty and homelessness have been eliminated and everyone has a safe, decent place to live; a place that they can call ‘home’, because we believe that the home is a key catalyst in helping to permanently break the cycle of poverty.”

This statement is concrete and describes a future which inspires employees, volunteers and their “home partners.” Even though you could argue it’s unreachable, that’s actually part of its power. And again, you can see how this truly describes what the organization fundamentally is.

On its website, Habitat is also very clear about its Christian and inclusive principles. This is a courageous move, one which many companies might avoid in an attempt to reach a safe compromise. But these kinds of bold and clear statements convey character, delivering a powerful and motivating message.

A third example is from Walmart. Sam Walton said it best: “If we work together, we’ll lower the cost of living for everyone … we’ll give the world an opportunity to see what it’s like to save and have a better life.” It’s about a much larger vision than just driving the bottom line.

Isn’t it interesting that these three examples tend to inspire from the outside in? They’re talking about impact on customers and on the world. Because of that message, an employee would see that there’s a much larger purpose to their work than just getting a paycheck.

Statements of values and principles address the inside-out view: They can be much clearer about how an organization wants to operate as a group of people. You might see statements including “results-oriented,” “honest and respectful,” “fair and open,” “customer focus” and even “fun.”

These are even more important, because employees experience these values every day. If they’re not experiencing fairness in their daily interactions, there will be no credibility to any claim that the company values fairness. In order to be effective, principles have to be universal and constantly practiced.

And challenging, not bland.

Carl Dierschow is a Small Fish Business Coach based in Fort Collins. His website is http://www.smallfish.us.

Copyright © 2012 Northern Colorado Business Report by Biz West Media.
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