There's a clothing drop box down the street that says, "TheAmerican Red Cross of Massachusetts is a humanitarian organization, led by volunteers, that provides relief to victims of disasters and helps people prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies." Good enough, so far. But adjacent to those words, in a font four times the size, and in bold, mind you, are the words, "Mission Statement." Which made me wonder, is this Red Cross's mission, or its mission statement? I don't want to go off on the Red Cross — the messaging on the drop box could just be some junior graphic designer's idea, and not an organizational mandate. But it spoke volumes about what was in the mind of the person who put it there. It gave away the context in which that person's work occurs: public relations. See, if you're on a mission, the box says something like, "Red Cross Emergency Clothing Drop Box!" in gigantic reflective lettering, and not a damned thing else. Because you're on a mission to get as much clothing as you can. But if the goal is to satisfy a contemporary set of communications and public relations standards, then it says trendy things like "Mission Statement."
A person or organization on a mission is inspiring. A mission statement is an abstraction. Add to this disadvantage the fact that most mission-statement writing is an exercise in compromise and equivocation, and now you've really depressed people.
The world is full of examples:
"At IBM, we strive to lead in the invention, development and manufacture of the industry's most advanced information technologies, including computer systems, software, storage systems and microelectronics. We translate these advanced technologies into value for our customers through our professional solutions, services and consulting businesses worldwide."
"The primary mission of the Annie E. Casey Foundation is to foster public policies, human-service reforms, and community supports that more effectively meet the needs of today's vulnerable children and families."
"The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world."
- "U2. Committed to the idea of community-based music that supports the development of passion in people from diverse cultures. We use this idea to foster change in social institutions and thinking."
- "Michael Phelps. Exploring the intersection of water dynamics and the human body in a context of competition."
- "Apollo. Striving to support companies and individuals with the potential to create aerospace technologies with the goal of developing lunar landing capabilities."
Steve Jobs is famous for having said, "I want to make a ding in the universe." Walt Disney, for having said of Disneyland, "I just want it to look like nothing else in the world." Springsteen said, "More than anything else — more than fame or wealth or even happiness — I just wanted to be great." Now these are mission statements. They yearn. They cry. They're unequivocal. And they're the product of the soul — the product of a passion for living and building and creating. They're not the product of a writing exercise. And the mission is not dependent on their being broadcast to the world, because the statements are not the source of the mission. The commitment is the source of the mission. The statements are merely the byproduct of the commitment. A mission statement can't create a commitment. And a commitment can't be thwarted by lack of a mission statement. Nelson Mandela didn't have a mission statement for creating a free South Africa. But man, was he on a mission.
The point is, don't put mission statements first. Get on a mission, and the other things will follow. Including the mission statement. On Apple's site map, you can't even find a "mission statement" link. But listen to how they talk about what they do: "Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world...Apple leads the digital music revolution...Apple is reinventing the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and has recently introduced its magical iPad which is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices."
Don't waste your advertising space on your mission statement. Use the space to tell people what you've accomplished, or what amazing thing your product will do — use it to show them what mission you're actually on.
And if you notice that you or your organization spends an inordinate amount of time talking about how to talk about what it does, then maybe it isn't sure what it does — and some serious soul-searching is in order. Maybe "messaging" has become a distraction. Perhaps there's some daring goal out there with your name on it that you're avoiding for fear of failure. But better to fail — mission-statement-less — at some audacious mission, than to have your mission statement all in order while risking nothing.
Oh, and that clothing drop box. It was blocked by a mound of snow that made it difficult to approach. An organization on a mission would have had that thing shoveled out as the last snowflake was falling, and put a little red carpet out there leading up to it. Isn't it after a snowstorm that people need warm clothing the most?