I think they are, when used properly.
Many companies and organizations have wonderfully generic and blank mission statements. “We synergize technologies to provide innovative solutions!” Well, great. So does everyone else. But what do YOU do?
A useful, good mission statement has to start at the top, and should be the driving strategic goal of the entire company.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say your company is someone who delivers packages (like a UPS or Fedex). What is your mission statement, and how does that drive your company’s strategic goals and plans? Its actually more important than you might realize.
Is your mission, “We deliver packages from one place to another?” OK, so that means you should be looking at drones. You should be looking at robots. But in fact, your mission might need to be a tiny bit more detailed. Are you long-haul, or last mile? Because that decides whether you should be looking at high-speed rail, maybe a big blimp instead of ships. Or instead its about how to have self-driving trucks with robots driving around a city.
But maybe your mission statement is a little different. Maybe its, “We drive trucks around a city.” OK, so, you should be looking at alternative fuel and electric trucks. You should be looking at driverless trucks. Does that mean you can deliver people, too? What about livestock? Perishables such as groceries?
Or maybe your mission statement really is, “We help companies get their products from factory to customer.” OK, then its different yet again. Maybe you do business analytics and know where to build warehouses to minimize travel time and maximize just-in-time delivery. Maybe you help companies know where to stage their product for the greatest demand, based upon geographic location, demographic, month and season, and weather. Or, if you adjust the mission statement slightly to, “We help customers get their stuff from companies” then its slightly different again. Maybe you keep lots of different companies’ inventory in your warehouses in tactically appropriate locations to be able to quickly deliver.
You see how something as simple as “I’m a shipping company” can have a lot of nuances on where to put your strategic resources? What goals are you trying to accomplish? What sector of the market are you trying to capture, business or consumer? Where do you think the company should be in five years?
Here’s a great example, and a classic business case, of a failure. What was Kodak’s mission? They thought it was, “We sell film and cameras”, but maybe it should have been, “We help people take pictures and get those pictures where they want them.” Think about it, how its subtly different yet would have meant the entire future of the company. The urban legend is that Kodak actually built the first digital camera, but since their mission was to sell film, and not help people get pictures, then their strategic focus didn’t follow that, and you can easily see what happened next.
By the way, this can be really hard. It takes some crystal ball gazing. And it takes some out-of-the-box innovative thinking. A great book that covers this is The Innovator’s Dilemma, and a classic example is Henry Ford, when he built the first car factory. What was his strategic goal? It was, “Help people move from point A to point B”. But as he famously (supposedly) quipped, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
Bottom line, be ready to change your mission statement. Be ready to pivot your company. Yes, this can be hard, but the reality of today’s business climate is unless you’re already a major player then you have to be agile.
As you go further down the org chart, then the mission statements should become more and more detailed, specific to the team but aligned with all the other teams. So one team might be, “We built IT solutions to help the company operate more efficiently.” Another team might be, “We maintain all the books, records, and financial statements for the company.” And don’t let yourself be pulled out of scope. If you are a finance team and your mission statement is “to maintain the books”, don’t let yourself spend time doing something like IT work such as installing the upgrades to your accounting software on all your PCs. There should be another team for that. And that’s OK! There’s no room for empire-building here.
So the mission statements might be:
- Company: We help people do “X”
- Business Unit: We build widgets to help people do “X”
- Division: We build the best widgets we can.
- Team A: We figure out how to make the widgets as fastly and cheaply as possible.
- Team B: We make sure the widgets are as high-quality as possible.
Notice how Teams A and B play off each other, in a good way? One team figures out how to streamline and cost save, the other one makes sure quality stays where it needs to. Working together, this Division can now build high-quality widgets at efficient cost and schedule.
As a leader, all this is important because all your decisions, both strategic and tactical, should be done under the context of the mission statements at your level and above. If you are Team A, what are you doing to build widgets faster and cheaper? What tasks are you working on? What are your strategic goals? If they are not aligned with your mission statement, then they are the wrong thing for you to be doing. Sure, you should be helping out other teams in the company, but a good leader can set the missions for all the teams in a way that align everyone towards a common goal.