09 June, 2009

Radical mission statements

Which renowned retailer once had the following mission statement?
“The subversion of the class structure of … England by making available to the working and lower-middle classes, upper-class quality at prices the working and lower-middle classes could well afford.”
Mission statements can be the most dreary and uninspiring committee compromise. Some leaders (and not a few employees) think they are meaningless window-dressing, not worth the effort, insincere, hypocritical and sometimes downright lying. Others think that their business is too lowly or mundane - a mission statement would be putting lipstick on a pig. However, we all know that people do respond to inspiring leadership rhetoric.

Sometimes mission statements talk about a result: “Achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” (NASA, hence the term ‘mission statement’). Sometimes they talk of a way of doing things, like Johnson & Johnson’s Credo. Sometimes they are unabashedly about making money; DuPont considered itself successful “only if we return to our shareholders a long-term financial reward comparable to the better performing large industrial companies”. Some mission statements spell out what a field a company is in (and what it is not). Deltec’s was “Helping people to communicate, by taking Teletilt to the world“. Societal good, industry, product field, and global ambition all expressed in ten words. You’d be amazed at how we could apply them - business processes, design, quality, product range management, people development, culture, shareholder value - you name it, we could use our mission statement to lift our game.

A powerful mission statement encapsulates the aims and modus operandi of an organisation, lived and breathed by its leaders and staff. It can be short or long. It needs to avoid compromise, timidity and insincerity. Above all, it must be believable, not only in its aim, but also its execution.

The Economist has a short web-only article on mission statements (from which I borrowed these ones) and suggestions for further reading. And the retailer? That epitome of the middle class establishment, Britain’s Marks & Spencer!

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