Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Writing Mission Statements: The Ultimate Make-work Task

Oh, how I could go on about the ridiculous process of writing a mission statement and, in many cases, their ultimate irrelevance in the actual operating environment of a company, division or department. But I won't. Because it can all be summed up in one story. A story with the added virtue of being absolutely true.

At the time, I was working for the internal communications department within a division of a major family entertainment company. Tied as my department was to HR, it was a business culture that contained exactly the kind of employees who would get completely spun up by the task of writing mission statements. Indeed, on this particular day, the team that focused on discipline-specific training was about to jump headlong into the challenge.

One of the members of this team had been with the company for a little more than a year, having come to us from an outdoors-oriented clothing chain. For me, he was an “internal client,” in the parlance of the business engineers, but in the course of that relationship he had become a good friend, too. Every time this group took a break from their day-long mission statement marathon, he would come by my cubicle with his head shaking.

I knew that the group was off the rails when, in his late morning update, he reported that many of them now had thesauruses (thesauri?) on their laps. Obviously, among some of them present, there was no longer any desire to be clear and succinct. No, the masters of memo obfuscation had put on their game faces and were ready to render polysyllabic nonsense, knowing that it would doubtless be greeted as profound thinking.

However, in a mid-afternoon update, my friend told me the group was stumped. They could not even agree on what to say, to say nothing of how to embellish it. But he thought he knew where to find the guidance they lacked.

He returned to his desk and went into his files. He pulled out a document, reviewed it, and began to take notes on his yellow legal pad. When the group re-assembled, he announced that he had spent the break “just jotting down some thoughts.” Showing evident modesty, he asked if he could share them.

As he read his tentative draft of their mission statement (he later told me), expressions of disbelief and wonder spread over the faces of his co-workers. “My God,” they exclaimed. “That’s it! You’ve captured our goals perfectly. And you wrote that just now?”

“No,” he replied. “This is the mission statement you had when I came here a year ago. You gave it to me during my first day on the job.”

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