To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
- Star Trek.
Many of us who have been employed by a company will have questioned at one time or other the motives of our management. While we're slaving away at the coal face, it can be difficult for us to see the world in the same way as the man in the ivory tower would. We may be responsible for making sure that enough widgets roll off the production line, but the executive management has to juggle lots of things to keep the business afloat.
Having enough widgets to meet customer orders is only one thing. The widgets must be sold in the first place. They have to be high quality and good value. They must be delivered promptly, and the customer must be billed correctly. Our suppliers must be paid for their goods and services. The workforce must be motivated and happy. We need to research and develop new widgets for future markets. The taxman must be paid. Last but not least, the shareholders must see some return on their investment.
In short, businesses are complicated. They're often diverse too, maybe offering a wide range of widgets and widget-related services, perhaps operating in a number of different territories. If anyone asks you exactly what your business does, well, you may not be entirely sure.
Now, that's not really good enough for the management. If you, the employee, don't know exactly what your company is doing, or how it wants to do it, or where it wants to be in the future, then you may not be working efficiently or singing from the same hymn sheet as your colleagues.
And so it was in the late 1980s that the first 'mission statements' started to appear - in the USA, naturally. In fact, they had been around for a lot longer than that but in different guises. One of the oldest is this, attributed to Henry Royce in 1904:
We try to build the best motor cars.
The earlier ones went by a number of names. Maybe they were called 'core values' or 'the company way'. Johnson and Johnson have one which they somewhat pretentiously call 'Our Credo'. Often they were wordy, point-by-point lists - neither memorable nor motivational. The new mission statements, on the other hand, were snappy. They served a number of purposes: to tell employees how they should act, to guide the company's strategic direction, and to tell those outside what the company stood for.
There was a fundamental problem, though. It's just not easy to write something so succinct, which not only motivates and guides, but differentiates you from your competitors. As a result, many organisations tried to cut corners by using the worst kind of meaningless platitudes and unintelligible business jargon:
Our mission is to produce superior financial returns for our shareholders by providing transportation, high value-added logistics and related information services through focused operating companies. Customer requirements will be met in the highest quality manner appropriate to each market segment served. We will strive to develop mutually rewarding relationships with our employees, partners and suppliers. Safety will be the first consideration in all operations. Corporate activities will be conducted to the highest ethical and professional standards.
But that wasn't the only reason we hated them. Despite the difficulty in writing them, they spread like a rash. Like a certain part of the body, everybody had one. At best they were lofty and grandiose; at worst they were some sort of pontificating sermon on life; a trendy idea from the Harvard Business School, either peddled by expensive consultants or dreamed up by sycophantic middle-managers on an outward-bound team-building course. They were often arcane and unintelligible, and yet at the same time they reeked of the bleeding obvious. They were supposed to motivate us like a dog motivates sheep. No wonder we were cynical.
Our attitude was summed up nicely by Annie Warburton, writing in the Hobart Mercury in 1996:
One of my favourite recent newspaper cartoons comes from the Financial Review and depicts one of our pilots being interrogated in your typical grim wartime cell by his Japanese captors.
'Name, rank and serial number', barks one. The pilot gives these.
'I feel you are wasting your time, Corporal Tashugo', says the other Japanese. 'The enemy are highly trained for such questioning. I think you will find that they will merely recite parrot-fashion a formal series of statements which convey absolutely zero meaningful information.'
The interrogator persists: 'What is your mission?' and the pilot answers: 'Through teamwork and shared values to deliver a superior competitive and fully integrated bombardment service on a globalised goal-oriented basis.' Whereupon Corporal Tashugo covers his ears and begs his prisoner to shut up.
Some Memorable Missions
Can you tell an organisation by its mission statement? Have a go at identifying the company behind the following quote - the answer is given later.
Our mission is to conduct all of our businesses, both energy and financial related, with four key values in mind: respect, integrity, communication and excellence. All business dealings must be conducted in an environment that is open and fair.
Not all mission statements were turgid with jargon. Some of them were actually quite clear and gave a passable insight into how the organisation operated:
Our mission is to make, distribute and sell the finest quality ice cream and euphoric concoctions with a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome, natural elements and promoting business practices that respect the Earth and the Environment.
- Ben & Jerry's
To enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.
Inform, educate and entertain.
- The BBC
It's all very well having these snappy statements, but the shortest ones often require more information beneath the surface. The BBC for example has an associated list of 'distinctive purposes', as well as a list of 'BBC Values'. Microsoft has an associated 'Vision Statement':
A computer on every desktop.The shorter ones do make effective promotional straplines, although some companies' missions probably took this a little too far:
To crush Reebok.
We will crush, squash, and slaughter Yamaha.
It should be said that none of these aggressive missions are thought to still be currently active.
So, did you spot the organisation whose mission was quoted at the start of this section? The one which conducts all its business with respect, integrity, communication and excellence? Yes, you've guessed it: Enron1.
Lingering Death and Noble Rebirth
Our goal is to assertively simplify enterprise-wide services and collaboratively customize market-driven meta-services in order to solve business problems.
- Randomly generated using the Dilbert Mission Statement Generator2.
Around ten years after the craze began, the mission statement had effectively died. There was no longer competitive advantage in having one when all your competitors had them too, and not only that, they were mind-numbingly similar. This was bad news indeed for all the business gurus and strategic consultants, but the gravy train hadn't quite derailed; it lay in some forgotten siding, not all that far from a US school of management. Someone decided to strip it down a little, then relaunch it with a vengeance.
The Mission Statement is dead. Long live the Noble Purpose!
So what's a noble purpose? It's kind of like a cross between a mission statement and an advertising slogan. It's usually a one-liner, and its key purpose is to differentiate a business from its competitors by staking a claim in a much grander scheme. Maybe a few examples will help explain:
To make people happy.
- Walt Disney
To give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people.
Now, not all companies would use the term 'noble purpose' for these, indeed many would still see them as missions, yet there is a tangible difference between them. The noble purpose plants a flag in the moral high ground. It says that this organisation caters for your conscience as well as your needs. In short, it gets inside your head.
So what of the future? You can elevate your company's noble purpose to higher and higher planes but at some point, when every other organisation has done the same, you may just have to get back to basics and tell it how it is. Who knows? Maybe one day they'll re-invent mission statements all over again...
A specialised lending and savings bank which aims to deliver superior value to customers and shareholders through excellent products, efficiency and growth.
- Northern Rock