Could you reduce your mission statement to 8 words?

by Sunny Bindra on November 15, 2010 · 3 comments

in Business Daily

“Most companies, regardless of their sectors, have a mission statement. And most are awash in jargon and marble-mouthed pronouncements. Worse still, these gobbledy-gook statements are often forgotten by, misremembered, or flatly ignored by frontline employees.
To combat this, (Kevin) Starr insists that companies he funds can express their mission statement in under eight words. They also must follow this format: “Verb, target, outcome.” Some examples: “Save endangered species from extinction” and “Improve African children’s health.”

ERIC HELLWEG blogs.hbr.org (22 October 2010)

Don’t even get me started on mission statements. Most of them are wordy, jargony, silly and utterly useless. As I have written on this page before: “Have mission statements, by all means; but only if you can make them short, punchy, clear, meaningful and interesting. Otherwise, light a large fire.”

Over the past few weeks I have come across two sensible contributions to the topic of mission statements. The first was said by the renowned Henry Mintzberg at Strathmore Business School: “If a hospital needs a mission statement, it needs to close down!” You know what he means: most organisations that have a clear and compelling and obvious reason they exist, really don’t need to spell it out. The Nairobi Hospital treats the ailing; Kenya Red Cross saves lives; KWS protects wildlife. It is obvious. If they need elaborate mission statements, it is for a different purpose than just spelling out what they do.

In the private sector, however, mission statements take on a different sheen. Most of them are a deliberate smokescreen, an attempt to divert attention from the primary reason for the existence of the corporation, which is usually to enrich shareholders and senior executives. And so we see the tortured statements that are commonplace, which claim to bring “magic”, “happiness”, “joy”, “peace” or “security” to the world. They are meant to soothe, assuage, and reassure customers, employees, governments and the rest that the corporation in question is a force for good for the many, not just a force for enrichment of the few.

But most such statements are so badly put together, so obviously full of artifice and hot air, that they don’t even fulfil that PR role. They are just banal and forgettable. They are neither believed nor remembered.

That is where Kevin Starr, quoted in the HBR blogs in the excerpt shown, comes in. Starr is executive director of the Mulago Foundation, an investment channel for social entrepreneurs. He made some very illuminating remarks about mission statements at a recent conference. He said two things: eight words or fewer is all you need; and think “verb, target, outcome.” In other words, what does your organisation actually DO? What is its primary target constituency? And what is the result it most wants? Those are the essential components. All else is fluff. And it can be done in eight words.

Try it and see. Dismantle and reconstruct your own undoubtedly turgid and uninspiring mission statement now with senior colleagues. See if it even vaguely reflects “verb, target, outcome.” Now see if you can make it happen in as few words as possible.

You will find this enormously difficult, but there is a point to it. This approach will force you to focus on what really matters. It will force you to be precise. It might make you realize what your organization is, or should be, REALLY about. You might find a form of words that captures that essence, that is easy to remember, that differentiates you from others, that clarifies your purpose for employees and customers and investors. Then, you might find you have eight words worth having.

At the very least, thinking about mission statements in this way will probably make your current statement shorter, more authentic and more memorable. Try it and see…

Related posts:

  1. Do yourself a favour – burn your mission statement!
  2. The lost art of speaking plainly
  3. The 5 signs of a dysfunctional Kenyan organisation
  4. The Obama speech: the power of words
  5. Don’t mistake your humdrum annual plan for your strategy

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew November 21, 2010 at 10:32 pm

mission statement: to confuse you with excessive verbiage into believing i stand for something sooo honorable such that you will give me your business and i will get rich quick at the expense of my employees who i claim to care about but their only hope of getting rich in my company is to win a million from sms competition or similar promotion from a cell phone company

[Reply]

2 sara December 7, 2010 at 6:27 am

i have come to learn the fewer the words the better! make it simple! that’s the only way people are gonna get it! companies should ensure that they create a statement that reflects the culture they want to build. This should be a strong simple culture which permeates all systems of the organization. if a company or an organization say “utumishi kwa wote” then when the board meets to deliberate on company issues, that should be the guiding light and the foundation. It should be what the client will leave the company having experienced, it should be what the front desk will reflect and it should be the walk of the company and not just the talk!

[Reply]

3 Sunny Bindra December 7, 2010 at 6:55 am

Sara:

All correct – I have nothing to add!

[Reply]

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: