Clarity and Simplicity: Keys to Effective Mission Statements

Can you state your organization's mission in 25 words or less? If not, then one of two things is probably true. You either need greater clarity with regard to the mission itself. Or you need greater simplicity in the way you state the mission.

Let's start with clarity. When I put this "25 word" test to my clients, they often protest that I've asked the impossible. "What we do is too complex to be reduced to a 25 word mission statement," they argue.

I've learned, however, that followers need a clear, concise mission statement in order to keep it before the mind's eye. Once a mission statement gets beyond 25 words, no one is likely to remember it well, including leadership itself. And if we can't remember our mission clearly, we are likely to achieve it more by accident than by purposeful action.

Further, complex mission statements usually indicate that leadership's itself lacks clarity about its true mission. I regularly see mission statements that contain three or four major components. And the way that they are stated makes the components appear somewhat disparate.

This indicates that leadership still needs to put its finger on the one unifying purpose that binds these disparate elements together. Has leadership identified this unifying purpose? Have leaders recognized it?

It is this greater purpose which is their true mission of the organization. To see an example of a company that grasps this principle, consider Yamaha. Have you ever noticed how many different product lines they produce? Guitars. Grand pianos. Motorcycles. Outboard motors. The list goes on and on.

At first these products seem to share little in common. But they in fact have a great commonality. They are all products that people use for recreation. And that's where Yamaha focuses its vision and mission statements. Yamaha wants to become the company of choice when people buy equipment for recreational use.

This mission can be stated in a fewer than 20 words. Yet Yamaha has built a multi-billion dollar industry on this simple view of its calling.

Clarity of mission is thus the first step. The second is to state the mission succinctly. Keep asking, "Can we express this mission fully in fewer words?" Keep condensing it until you have it down to 25 words or so. Then strive to compress it further.

Keep in mind that your goal is to have a memorable mission statement. After all, what good is a mission statement if neither leaders nor their people can readily recall it?

One of the greatest mission statements of the 20th century came from Henry Ford. His goal, he said, was to build a reliable automobile that every worker could afford to have in his garage.

This statement is the essence of clarity and simplicity. Beyond that, its wording made his goal easy to envision, namely, a car parked in every worker's garage.

The statement is also quite visionary, since few workers at the time had garages. But Ford envisioned a day when people would want his cars so much that they would build garages to hold them.

When a mission statement is at once succinct, easily pictured, and visionary, it becomes a powerful tool for setting direction, creating motivation, and measuring progress. Any mission statement that falls short of these achievements is probably of little value.

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