Are You Clear On Your Mission?

Posted: January 1, 2010 in Readiness & Strategy

The more I work with my clients to help them formulate and develop effective strategy and operational plans, the more I realize that the mission is the first and most critical element of strategy development. There are three basic reasons for this.

First, a clear mission statement represents a distillation of the organization’s raison d’être. Second, a clear mission sends a powerful message to its market or constituency. Third, a clear mission helps to focus the organization internally around a key ordering principle. Let’s look at each of these reasons in turn.

A Clear Raison D’être. In a commercial organization, the mission represents its value proposition to the marketplace. In a non-commercial organization, the mission tells everyone, internally and externally, how the organization’s beneficiaries are better off through its services. The mission of the organization is at the point where the following three elements intersect:

Motivation. Why does this organization exist? Why is this company in business? Who does it serve? Why is this important? For a private business, whether it profit or non-profit, this motive often represents a fundamental passion and powerful motivation. We see this most readily with entrepreneurs, who exhibit tremendous passion and energy. For a public organization, the motive is provided through its mandate, which often results from legislation or from a political will to effect a change in society or to render a critical service for the public. The motivation also instantiates the values of the organization and/or its founders. These values are what are considered most important, and they provide a compass for decision-making in situations of ambiguity or conflict over resources and objectives.

Competencies. At the minimum, these are the strengths and weaknesses that the organization brings to the table, whether at the individual level, or in terms of its processes, practices and structures. Peter Drucker stated that individuals and organizations could only improve in a sustainable way by building on their strengths. This is because strengths provide the competitive advantage of the business. In commercial terms, the driving force of a business represents its principal strength and the wellspring of its competitive advantage. On the other hand, it is also important to know where the organization is weak, so as not to waste precious resources, motivation, and “headspace” on trying to fix a fundamental weakness. No matter how many times you use a bowling ball to hammer in a nail, it will never be as effective as a good old hammer.

Market/Constituency Needs. This is often overlooked, especially in the public sector, but there has to be a clear “market need” that the organization is aiming to fulfil. Needs can be identified, and they can also be created, but a failure to do either of these can be disastrous for the organization and its clientele, as it tends then to become excessively focused on its inner workings and processes. Another word for this is bureaucracy, and it is the bane of the public sector and also of some private sector organizations. Only by connecting organically to its constituency or its market can an organization remain focused outwardly on the people it is aiming to serve, rather than its own problems.

A Powerful External Message. At its best, an organization’s mission should be readily apparent to any outside agency or potential client. For many companies, the mission statement is distilled into a single tagline that evokes the brand and its essential value proposition: “Coke is it”; “Gillette: The Best a Man Can Get”; “You’re in good hands with Allstate”; and Apple’s “Think Different.” Many public organizations – especially in law enforcement, the military, and emergency management – have a motto or recruiting tagline that evokes brilliantly what the organization is about and how it perceives itself. This is the essence of a powerful mission statement. In the 70s and 80s, the Canadian Forces’ recruiting campaign was built around the simple phrase “There’s no life like it.” They even had a song for it. And how about the U.S. Marines’ “We only need a few good men,” which inspired a movie title? You can agree or disagree with these statements, but at least you know what they mean and how the organization wishes to be perceived.

An Internal Ordering Principle. With a clear mission statement, the leadership of an organization can make vital decisions about priorities and resources. It allows managers to answer these key questions: What is our core? What is non-core but supports the core? What is superfluous? This might lead to difficult decisions, but at least it’s based on a clearly articulated vision of what value the organization is meant to be conveying to its market or constituency. A clear mission also focuses everyone in the organization in a laser-like manner on what needs to be done to make it a reality. It compels management and rank-and-file members to focus their attention, effort and resources on preferred outcomes. Consequently, the mission must be readily understood and easy to remember. Long winded statements full of vapid and vague language might look good on paper, but in reality they are useless to provide the needed focus. Everyone must feel compelled to rally around the mission, especially when the going gets rough, and only clear and powerful language can provide that kind of motivating influence.

In summary, the mission is the first and most critical piece of an organization’s strategy, whether in the public or private sector. With a powerful mission, people in the organization know how to orient themselves in the absence of detailed direction or when there is a major change in the external situation. In the military, when all else fails and the enemy is at the gates, it is the mission that provides the wherewithal and the focus to continue soldiering on and to attain the unit’s objectives. This is why soldiers like to say that the mission always takes precedence. The same applies in business and in public sector organizations.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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