Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Man with a mission

This week some of my student teams have to write a mission statement. Normally when I teach my undergraduate strategy class, I dismiss mission statements as so much hokum, but for an intercollegiate competition they have to come up with one.

This is one of the few cases where I agree with Scott Adams: normally I find Dilbert too anti-business and cynical, but his online mission statement generator is spot on. Here’s the third example it gave me tonight:

It's our responsibility to assertively administrate low-risk high-yield infrastructures while maintaining the highest standards.
Despite my general skepticism, there are good mission statements and bad mission statements. A good mission statement is memorable — something employees can recite or at least paraphrase. The COB faculty just rejected a proposed change to its mission, which was already succinct and to the point:
The College of Business is the institution of opportunity, providing innovating business education and applied research for the Silicon Valley Region.
Trying to help my students, I stumbled on the blog Man on a Mission, by financial planner “JLP” in Texas.

On the blog, I found a couple of excellent examples of mission statements, for Trader Joe’s (my wife’s favorite grocery store), and for Southwest Airlines. I liked the Xerox mission statement, but it’s really more of a vision statement (a statement of desired future state, rather than the activities a firm will undertake to achieve its goals).

This really confirms what I always suspected: mission statements are effective for exceptional companies, but not run-of-the-mill ones. If you can’t succinctly say why your company is different, then it’s either because you’re not — or because you have lousy, inarticulate leadership. (BTW, some exceptional companies are not necessarily well run — think Ben & Jerry’s, Body Shop, or Apple during the period 1992-1997).

Finally, there is the question of credibility. It appears that in many cases the mission statement (or values or vision) is what management would like the company to be, not an accurate discussion of what it is now (or what it once was). For example, what company is this?
As a company, and as individuals, we value integrity, honesty, openness, personal excellence, constructive self-criticism, continual self-improvement, and mutual respect. We are committed to our customers and partners and have a passion for technology. We take on big challenges, and pride ourselves on seeing them through. We hold ourselves accountable to our customers, shareholders, partners, and employees by honoring our commitments, providing results, and striving for the highest quality.

Does this sound like a company that gets sued so often that FindLaw has a special page to summarize all the litigation? The sort of company they’d like to become? Or merely the sort of company they’d like people to think they are?

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