The Enduring Value and False Promise of Mission Statements

When we should just let them go

Mission statements are everywhere. From the tippy top of an organization to the very bottom, and seemingly on every strategy document in between, mission statements have wormed their way into everything. 

Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore took on the topic in a recent column. She pointed out that “most mission statements…are baloney,” and led with one of Facebook’s: “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Lepore noted this mission statement is akin to the “salvation of humanity,” and, pointed out that in reality, the company’s purpose is “to make money for its investors.” 

There’s a disconnect. There’s what an organization claims it does, and then what it actually exists to do. But that’s just the start of what’s wrong with ongoing, never-ending mission statements. 

Lepore’s historical lens is helpful. She points out the word “mission” comes from the Latin for “send.” She writes, 

“In English, historically, a mission is Christian, and means sending the Holy Spirit out into the world to spread the Word of God: a mission involves saving souls. In the seventeenth century, when ‘mission’ first conveyed something secular, it meant diplomacy: emissaries undertake missions. Scientific and military missions—and the expression ‘mission accomplished’—date to about the First World War. ‘Mission statements’ date to the Vietnam War, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff began drafting ever-changing objectives for a war known for its purposelessness. (The TV show ‘Mission: Impossible’ debuted in 1966.) After 1973, and at the urging of the management guru Peter Drucker, businesses started writing mission statements as part of the process of ‘strategic planning,’ another expression Drucker borrowed from the military.”

She continues, 

“By the nineteen-nineties corporate mission statements had moved from the realm of strategic planning to public relations. That’s a big part of why they’re bullshit. One study from 2002 reported that most managers don’t believe their own companies’ mission statements. Research suggests a rule of thumb: the more ethically dubious the business, the more grandiose and sanctimonious its mission statement.” 

Herein lies the gap. Mission statements are for physical efforts with a beginning, a middle, and an end. They are not open-ended. Mission statements should focus activity toward some specified purpose. They are not ambiguous. Mission statements are simple, clear, direct statements about accomplishing success in some way. They are not airy PR-phrases or TEDesque talking points.

In late-May, we talked about plans versus strategies versus strategy. The distinction is worth restating. Plans end, as when planning a trip when all the variables are known. Some strategies end, if they’re aimed at a specific objective (i.e., competitive sports). And some strategies won’t have a defined end as the objective sought extends farther than the foreseeable horizon. 

While there is no hard-and-fast distinction, there is a trend we can observe. When we progress from plans to strategies to strategy, we move from more defined/certain terms to more fluid/uncertain terms. 

Mission statements work with plans and some strategies because there’s a definite end. 

Mission statements aren’t useful to beyond-horizon strategy in that the variables multiply the farther out from now you go. If your aim is to cure cancer or defeat terrorism or tackle the climate crisis or “bring the world closer together” like Facebook, then mission statements are meaningless because the mission never ends.