Mar 1, 2011

Mission Statements: Who Needs ‘Em?

Next to reviewing bylaws, revising an organization’s mission statement could be the single most dreaded undertaking for a board. Despite the best efforts, it can often devolve into wordsmithing by committee until everyone’s eyes glaze over and consensus is finally reached through pure fatigue. Then, emboldened with its new mantra, the organization proceeds to plaster the new mission statement on every available communication possible – websites, newsletters, stationary, auction invites, even team uniforms are all fair game.

I recently read a terrific blog from the Harvard Business Review by Dan Pallotta, which could save us all from this exasperating “mission statement madness.” In his post, “Do You Have a Mission Statement, or Are You on a Mission?” Pallotta challenges us to step back and look at mission statements in a new way – one that could actually communicate meaning and relevancy for a school. He provides some humorous examples of mission statements gone awry. For example, he takes IBM to task for “striving to lead in the invention, development and manufacture of the industry’s  most advanced information technologies…” – Apple doesn’t strive for anything, it goes out and does it, and very well at that. My favorite was Pallotta’s conjectured mission statement for Michael Phelps had he indulged in the traditional committee effort: “Exploring the intersection of water dynamics and the human body in a context of competition.” Sounds absurd, doesn’t it – Phelps swims to win Olympic medals, pure and simple.

The real takeaway from his blog is that true mission statements are unequivocal, passionate products of the soul. They emanate from a school’s commitment, not vice versa. In Pallotta’s words, “they are not the source of the mission – the commitment is the source of the mission.” He adds a cautionary note worthy of our reflection. “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. 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.”

So when your board decides it’s time to take a look at your mission statement – stop. Instead, reflect on the amazing work your organization does, and why the world is a better place because of it. Therein lies your mission (statement). Much easier, isn’t it?!

~ Tracy

Leave a Comment