So What Does It Take to Write a Good Mission Statement?

The Birmingham Post (England), August 31, 2004 | Go to article overview

So What Does It Take to Write a Good Mission Statement?


Byline: Bob Mitchell

A s reasonably down to earth Midlands manufacturers, you would expect that we should have little truck with 'mission statements'.

After all, we all know what our business is, and why we do it - to make money through selling goods and services that customers want to buy.

Mission statements are surely only for big companies with too much time on management's hands.

Otherwise reputable companies performing linguistic gymnastics in an attempt to articulate the obvious. Mission statements optimally include: where the organisation sees itself in the future, the business area(s) which the company believes it is in, its distinctive competence/capability therein, and its essential values/philosophy. It must also be succinct if customers and employees are going to get the message in one.

However, often the result is so anodyne as to have no meaning or effect at all.

Invensys' strategy, for example, is a classic, but by no means unique, example: 'To achieve sustainable growth, a company needs to provide world-class products, services, and solutions, but it must also promote trust with investors, business partners, employees, and the general public.'

One might argue that the mission statement of a diverse group will always be a bit of a compromise.

Surely it must be more straightforward when a business is relatively focused - for example, a supermarket. Well, Sainsbury's also tries to tick all the boxes, but ends up with something sounding like the Boy Scouts Promise: 'Our objective is to meet our customers' needs effectively and thereby provide shareholders with good, sustainable financial returns. We aim to ensure all colleagues have opportunities to develop their abilities and are well rewarded for their contribution to the success of the business. Our policy is to work with all of our suppliers fairly, recognising the mutual benefit of satisfying customers' needs. We also aim to fulfil our responsibilities to the communities and environments in which we operate.'

Dib dib dib! But hardly a compelling siren call to pop into your local Sainsbury's.

Some lose the plot altogether. Marks & Spencer's stated mission in its 2004 annual report - at least until very recently - was 'making aspirational quality accessible to all'.

What's that all about? I'm afraid that it has all the signs of something that was dreamt up in an offsite meeting by top management which has simply lost touch with what the business is truly about. And the stated vision 'to be the standard against which all others are measured' isn't much better in terms of obscurity and un-verifiability.

So, are all attempts at 'mission statements' doomed to be clumsy retrospective rationalisations of what a business is already doing? And in trying to send a 'one size fits all' message, do all of the target audiences end up confused anyway, because there are natural tensions between their constituencies. For example, customers want the best value, but shareholders are more inclined to be into maximising profits. Employees usually yearn for security and opportunity, but business is more inclined to 'right sizing'. …

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