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Mission: Innovation

[Author's note: If you find listening to the Mission: Impossible theme music makes you feel like you can run through a brick wall, you can listen to it while you read. The old school version is at, while Moby's techno version is at I listened to it while I wrote, so it may enhance your reading experience...]

The Difference Between Mission Statements and Missions

Let me come right out and say it: I hate “mission statements.” I hate them because most of them are meticulously crafted papers more worthy of fireplace kindling than of inspirational reading. I hate them because most of them are completely ignored by anyone who needs to be motivated by them. I hate them because most of them are simply bullshit. Please excuse the language, but saying that most of them are “nonsense,” “baloney,” or “drivel” is just not sufficient to convey the full meaning of what they are.

You know the type: the framed corporate mission statements that hang in beige conference rooms featuring photos of soaring eagles or daring rock climbers summiting a scenic mountain peak.The words, if anyone ever bothers to read them, are either meaningless malarkey, uninspiring bloviation, or over-written sleep inducers. Such mission statements inspire more cynicism than commitment. Such mission statements hurt more than they help.

If all you want to do is create some useless office wall covering, go to an online Mission Statement Generator (find a great one here: and have it do the work for you. It’s free, takes practically no time, and it’s not entirely worthless – it does have comedic value.

Look, if you can’t say your mission simply and sincerely, don’t say it at all. Better to leave the organization directionless than to have everyone doubt the direction. In the former case, people may actually ask, “Where are we going?” In the latter case, they won’t bother asking because they won’t believe the answer, anyway.

Now, if you are going to put the effort into creating a mission statement that will align and inspire, then you should probably make sure that you do it right. What I am advocating is a clearly communicated purpose for what the organization aims to do. Best is something that inspires people to supportive action. At the very least, it should be something on which people can focus when issues arise. In the face of conflict or uncertainty, every discussion should revolve around the question, “what will best help us achieve our mission?”

Someone who was pretty effective at achieving his mission was Mohandes K. Gandhi. He eloquently captured the need for a single “attitude,” a unified reason for being that guides all action: “When the Attitude ceases to be one and undivided and becomes many and divided, it ceases to be one settled will, and is broken up into various wills of desires between which [people are] tossed about.” If people in the organization are feeling tossed about, it’s likely due to lack of clarity in, agreement on, and alignment to a common mission.

Missions must be lived by people of the organization – most especially by the leadership. They must be used as the lighthouse that guides organizational decisions and activities safely into port. Anything that is posted on the walls, but is not lived by the doers of deeds, is a waste. But a real mission drives performance.

In nonprofit organizations, a focused statement of the organization’s mission has been demonstrated to drive innovation and overall organizational performance by keeping innovation efforts clearly and strategically targeted at a particular purpose.

In for-profit businesses, having a strong innovation mission is one of the differentiating factors between innovative firms and the not-so-muches. Serving a clear mission not only makes organizations generally more innovative, but also helps to drive the success of individual new product launches.

As previously and unequivocally mentioned earlier, we all know that there are some mission statements that have a less-than-positive impact on their organizations. Avoid them like you’d avoid an annoying close-talker with halitosis. Mission statements need to influence the people within the organization if they are to do any good. That influence needs to support commitment and alignment.

The mission needs to be something that people can live, and not just read. Even an eloquent and well-communicated expression of mission will fall flat if the organization – and particularly the leaders in it – doesn’t actually live it on a daily basis.

Need an example of failing to live the words? See if you can guess the company that included “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence” in its mission statement. That company was Enron. Need I say more?

Back to what the research says. There is general agreement that an effective mission statement provides several important benefits to an organization:

  • Helping to keep all stakeholders informed and aligned with an organization’s objectives;

  • Serving as a guide for strategic planning;

  • Providing a foundation for decision-making and resource allocation.

If you communicate your mission well, you will draw the right people to you – employees, volunteers, customers, donors, partners, suppliers, and supporters. They will serve as references, living testimonials to your cause. You will move forward more easily because everyone is pushing or pulling in the same direction.

Consider the words of Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of the Visa credit card association:

“I believe that purpose and principle, clearly understood and articulated, and commonly shared, are the genetic code of any healthy organization. To the degree that you hold purpose and principles in common among you, you can dispense with command and control. People will know how to behave in accordance with them, and they’ll do it in thousands of unimaginable, creative ways. The organization will become a vital, living set of beliefs.”

So what is your mission? If you want to communicate it, you have to know it. I hope that you got into your business, whether for profit or nonprofit, for a reason. If not, I hope you can come up with a reason for staying in your business – besides just paying off some bills.

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