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What Makes a {Bad / Better / Even Better} Mission Statement?

What makes a great mission statement? Turns out there are a few important criteria that separate Bad, Better, and Even Better mission statements. Much as there is wide debate about what a mission statement should cover, there is huge variation in how organizations compose mission statements1. Some are short, and some are long. Some describe a vision while some only offer purpose. Others manage to say a lot without saying much at all.

So what makes a great mission statement? In a way, we believe the standard is simple – a great mission statement is one that improves your organization’s culture and effectiveness in a meaningful way. What does that look like? Let’s explore some concrete examples of Bad, Better, and Even Better mission statements.

A Great Mission Statement Starts with a Minimum Take-Away

At a minimum, communicating your mission in a way that is compelling and action-provoking requires attention to two key elements:

  • Purpose - Why does your organization exist?
  • Strategy - What does your organization offer? How are you unique?

Purpose

Purpose catalyzes action and stamina in your organization. Purpose sums up why your organization exists and why your work matters in the world. Every viable and thriving business solves some problem or improves life in some way. Make your organization’s purpose known, and you provide people with a way to connect emotionally and a reason to love your organization.

Stating purpose alone, though, is not a mission. Purpose leaves too much up to vague, individualized fill-in-the-blank decisions and actions.

Strategy

Strategy provides critical direction on what you offer and how you’re unique. Remembering the ‘Why’; providing the strategy answer to how your organization pursues your purpose guides action. Present a clear strategy, and you provide people with a sense of certainty about what they can actually expect from an experience working in or with your team.

Purpose + Strategy

Notice how these choices for mission minimum pull together the lower-level identity element, purpose, plus the lower-level direction element, strategy. That way you cover identity and direction in a focused way that is closest to the decisions and actions you hope a stated mission will influence. You answer fundamental questions about what you do (strategy) and why you do it (purpose). Those answers provide the foundation for a great mission statement.

Any statement that does not address basic identity and direction in some way is incomplete as a motivating statement of mission.

Values & Vision

Adding values and/or vision elements provides further clarification beyond this mission minimum.

Alongside purpose, values highlight identity. Specifically, values describe the foundation of organization culture as a list of principles that guide employee behavior.

Alongside strategy, vision further clarifies direction. Vision brings to life the future world an organization seeks to create.

Values and vision are both helpful to round out the essential mission captured by knowing your organization’s purpose and strategy, but may not be essential.

What's In A Great Mission Statement

So, looking at any particular mission statement, start with substance:

  • Bad = doesn’t address mission fundamentals of identity + direction
  • Better = captures the organization’s purpose and strategy
  • Even Better = may round out identity and direction with values and/or vision

The Bad, the Better, and the Even Better

From our consulting work, submissions to our Mission Rater Tool, and our research on thousands of mission statements, a few characteristics of the Bad, the Better, and the Even Better stand out as especially relevant.

A Bad One

Let’s start at the low end. What makes a bad mission statement? Consider this example:

“We here at Coetic strive to provide the best services possible to our valued customers to help them reach their goals. We are confident that our innovation and commitment to quality will ensure steady financial growth and help us become the best in the industry. Global citizenship is important to us and we always do business with integrity and professionalism.”

It's Bad.

Ugh. Remember the point about mission statements that manage to say a lot without saying much at all? A sad number of published mission statements sound a lot like this example. They might fit any organization, rather than vividly capturing the essence and importance of a particular organization. What are the flaws?

Unclear, unoriginal, and uninspiring. What does Coetic actually do, and for whom? All this statement says is that Coetic wants to do a good job, be the best, be profitable, and behave reasonably well. Most companies want to do these things. The stated purpose relates to helping customers reach their goals, but it’s too vague. The most common way that missions fall flat is by neglecting to include a sense of why.

Yawn-worthy buzzwords. Similarly, this example lacks a stated strategy. Words and phrases like “best possible,” “valued customers,” and “innovation” are too common in mission statements. The point is not to copy keywords from other mission statements. The stale, passive language does little to inspire, and ends up sounding aimless rather than directional, and empty rather than uniquely compelling. A strong mission statement should cause a positive emotional response, not a yawn. Every word matters.

Too long. Style is important in effective and high-impact mission statements (see our blog post on Mission Statement Style). Can you imagine trying to recall and apply the example statement regularly? Between the boring language and the length, this statement is not memorable. Even if you spent the time to memorize it, reciting these clunky, long-winded sentences would be more inconvenient than useful. Not ingredients for a great mission statement.

A Better One

So what if you’ve got a mission statement that sounds an awful lot like “A Bad One?” Just think of it as a draft, and re-engage your organization in rethinking an improvement. Realize that sometimes the best way to move a bad draft forward is to scrap it entirely. Consider this revision:

“Coetic energizes organizations to be great places to do meaningful work by sparking insights, illuminating opportunities, and connecting people with shared ideas, beliefs, and values that foster leadership and success.”

It's Better.

Better, right? How does this statement hit the mark, and how does it still fall short?

It covers purpose and strategy. While it’s not specific about Coetic’s products and services, this statement does convey how Coetic aims to improve workplaces. It also suggests a purpose: to promote changes that encourage meaningful work. Leading with this stated purpose presents on opportunity for like-minded people to immediately feel a sense of connection with the Coetic identity. Notice the word “by,” which shifts the mission from describing purpose to naming specific unique strategies for how Coetic fulfills that purpose and creates specific outcomes.

It’s emotional. This statement is far more likely than the “Bad One” example to inspire an emotional response and motivate action. Notice the use of rich, active verbs like energize, spark, illuminate, and connect. These words bring vitality to the statement. Because a mission needs to be relatively short, using compelling words and phrases conveys the most meaning. So this one is much closer to being a great mission statement.

But it’s dense and unlikely to really stick. This mission statement’s emotionality is a double-edged sword. Thirty words pack a single sentence split by four commas. This construction makes the mission a mouthful to read and digest.

An Even Better One

Once you’ve got a “Better” mission statement, where else can you go? We’ve seen many examples of mission statements with a level of clarity, inspiration, and memorability that we define as “Even Better.”

We’ve also seen the way these “Even Better” statements have an almost palpable positive impact throughout the organization. A great, well-crafted mission statement is easy for people and teams to grab and apply to guide what they do. Continuing our example, consider this iteration:

“Coetic energizes vibrant, purpose-driven organizations by embedding evidence-based people practices into advanced but accessible technologies.”

It's Even Better.

It covers purpose and strategy. Like the “Better” statement, this iteration emphasizes purpose and strategy. It establishes identity and offering.

It says more about uniqueness. The “Better” mission was emotionally appealing, but it could still apply to many consulting firms. The “Even Better” statement sets Coetic apart by discussing how we work (i.e., we combine evidence-based theory, technology, and affordability). It doesn’t go into detail about specific products. The statement summarizes Coetic’s offerings into one category and says just enough to draw interest.

It’s more focused. The “Even Better” version isn’t quite as emotional as the last one. But it condenses many of the concepts into one deliberate, punchy phrase: “vibrant, purpose-driven organizations.” It answers all of the required questions in a format that can stick more easily.

Not A Perfect One

If you’re reacting to our mission statement examples or if you’ve ever been involved in writing your own, an inevitable realization is that there is no such thing as perfect when it comes to mission statements. We believe there are three reasons:

  • Every organization is a dynamic evolving system that is complex and nuanced, making it difficult to precisely capture its essence
  • Every person responding to a mission statement is unique, with beliefs, experiences, and expectations that serve as filters for what the mission statement seeks to express
  • There is inherent tension among the criteria that define a great mission statement, so that balancing clarity, inspiration, and memorability defy absolute perfection

Hence, when working with a team to craft your great mission statement, it’s helpful to acknowledge that perfect is not achievable. While all of the statements you'll consider will likely be true about your organization, some will be Bad, some Better, and some Even Better.

References

  1. King, D. L., Case, C. J., & Premo, K. M. (2014). 2012 mission statements: A ten country global analysis. 13(10), 17. http://electronic-businessjournal.com/images/2014/2014-10/1.pdf