Which of these mission statements is better?
- We can be relied upon to synergistically build cutting-edge solutions to meet our clients’ needs.
- It is our mission to professionally build quality and competitive solutions to reach new levels of customer service.
Yeah, you’re right: they both stink. And both were randomly created using the Mission Statement Generator, a funny online tool that mashes the most vapid mission-speak into statements that sound just a little too much like something you’ve seen silkscreened onto a lobby wall.
If you—even for a moment—weighed which of these two statements could actually work as a mission, you’re not alone. The Generator, like any good lampoon, is funny because it’s true. Chances are you’ve read and perhaps even written statements that were nearly as obtuse. Take this real one, for example, selected by Inc.com as one of the nine worst mission statements of all time:
To create a shopping experience that pleases our customers; a workplace that creates opportunities and a great working environment for our associates; and a business that achieves financial success.
Nothing wrong with the intent, to be sure. But what does this retailer actually do? And how is it different from any other company that wants happy customers, contented employees, and a profitable bottom line? (The company, by the way, is Albertson’s, a chain of grocery stores.*)
A matter of execution and utility
The problem with the above examples isn’t just that they’re written poorly. The problem is that poor writing renders the statements virtually useless. Mission and vision statements should be dynamic and accessible—providing direction, clarity, grounding, or inspiration to shareholders, employees, and customers. The statements should be more than just words that get buried on the “About Us” page of a website. Good mission and vision statements are so clear and compelling that others will want to make them their own.
In this post and the following one, we’ll look first at how to craft clear and engaging mission and vision statements, and then at how to help employees and other stakeholders align with and take ownership of those statements.
First: is it a mission or a vision?
Whether your organization has a mission statement, a vision statement, or both is entirely up to you. What’s most important is knowing what you want your statement to do: do you want it to ground you in the here and now or drive you enthusiastically forward?
A mission statement
- defines why you exist, what you do, and how you do it
- is rooted in the now
A vision statement
- describes a desired future state and is the “North Star” at which you aim
- is pointed toward long-term achievements and dreams
Simply put, mission statements are actual; vision statements are aspirational. Here’s an example of charity: water’s here-and-now mission statement:
Charity: water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
Its vision statement, however, aims further ahead:
…to end the water crisis in our lifetime by ensuring that every person on the planet has access to life’s most basic need—clean drinking water.
The first step in crafting your mission or vision statement is to know if you want it to be foundational or aspirational. You may decide to craft a statement that is a little of both.
Find the core of your strong mission or vision statement
A well-written, concise mission or vision statement takes time and thoughtfulness. Whether you’re starting from scratch or refreshing stale language, give yourself days, even months, for the process. Begin by brainstorming and discussing the questions below—alone or with a team.
|Mission Statement||Vision Statement|
|What do we do and how do we do it?||Where do we want to be in the future?|
|Why do we do it?||Where do our excitement and motivation come from?|
|What markets do we serve, and what are the benefits we offer?||What is the long-term effect we want for customers, the industry, the economy, the environment, or the world?|
|How do we make our customer’s life better?||What does our ultimate success look like?|
|What do we value or offer that is particularly important or unique (e.g., tuition reimbursement for employees, 100% guarantee for customers)?||What core values drive us forward?|
|What other characteristics define our company’s style, culture, and personality?||How will people describe us in 10 years?|
Once you’ve brainstormed answers to these questions, try this deceptively simple exercise: take a few of the questions from above and try answering each in six words. Choose and combine those six words in various ways: as a six-word fragment; a four-word plus a two-word sentence; six separate words. Be creative. (Tip: contractions can help.)
Whether or not you end up using these short phrases in your mission or vision statements, the six-word exercise forces you to express the core of your ideas and helps avoid the tendency to pile on empty language. For example, how does Gilda’s Club Twin Cities, a cancer support organization in Minneapolis, define what its success looks like?
Where no one faces cancer alone.
Enjoy the writing process
Finding the right combination of words that are both precise and enjoyable requires creativity. And creativity requires play. As you explore the language of your mission or vision statement, allow yourself to have fun: rearrange words, revise them, flip them. Use a thesaurus app such as Wordflex to find out what substituting new words does to the rhythm of your statement. Then, apply these statement-writing best practices:
- Aim for one or two sentences. The shorter the sentences, the more memorable and repeatable your statement will be.
- Write for the ear rather than the eye. Think of writing a script for someone to say as opposed to writing words that will be chiseled in stone. Your statement should sound good when read aloud.
- Be specific and avoid jargon. Use words people use in everyday conversation.
- Let yourself be emotional and speak from the heart; you can always cut back.
- Edit mercilessly. Cut buzzwords, hype, and general claims that any organization could make.
- Let your language reflect your organization’s personality. How does your company look? Sound?
- Use vibrant, exciting words; focus on action rather than sentiment (we propel vs. we believe).
- Use present tense. Even with aspirational statements, putting them in present tense will imbue them with more power than future tense.
Finally, show your drafted statements to others and solicit their feedback because—ultimately—a mission or vision statement is useless if it’s not easily embraced and meaningful.
That’s what we’ll look at in a future post: getting employees and other stakeholders to align with and take ownership of mission and vision statements. In the meantime, do you have a favorite vision or mission statement? Or one you believe could be improved?
*Since being called out by Inc.com for having a poor mission statement, Albertson’s appears to have revised theirs—“Our mission is simple: we want to run really great stores and provide great customer service.”