Some mission statements are deliberately designed to be so broad, vague and socially desirable that it is impossible to be against them. Their purpose is not to drive action and, in fact, one of their principal virtues is that no one can figure out what actions are being planned, what alternative goals will be ignored or where the money will come from. Their aim is to elicit warm, unfocused feelings of goodwill toward the statement or its author.
These statements are the typical stock-in-trade for the politician who hopes to gain your support while committing himself to nothing that restricts his future flexibility. For these mission statements to do their job, however, they must be actionable. Consider the following two statements: "We intend to triple our revenue by the year 2012," and "We want to be the best business in the whole wide world." Although these two statements may seem to exemplify very different approaches to articulating a mission, they suffer from the same defects.
First, since there is no way to be opposed to statements of this kind, no one will oppose them, making it impossible to know whether your people really embrace what you are trying to accomplish. Second, it's impossible to determine from these statements what anyone is supposed to do to support the objective. Third, the vagueness of both statements makes it hard to measure the organization's progress toward the objective and to assess the performance of individual employees. Finally, setting forth visions and mission statements in such a manner affords you no competitive advantage, because nobody can distinguish your vacuous statements from everyone else's.
To illustrate this last point, when I taught in the University of Michigan's executive programs, I would ask participants to place their value and mission statements in a shoe box at the front of the room. I would then say, "I'm going to randomly select a statement and read a few sentences from the middle of the page. If it's yours, raise your hand." In a typical session, when I started reading three hands would go up—belonging to an exporter, someone from the U.S. Coast Guard and a urinal manufacturer. All three thought I was reading their mission statement!
Sometimes I would ask each participant to write on her statement the approximate number of hours that had gone into its preparation. The numbers were often depressingly large—175 hours, 220 hours, 400 hours—yet these executives couldn't tell their own mission statements from the urinal manufacturer's.
To make this point when I speak to executives who all work for the same firm, I sometimes show them this code of ethics statement and ask them whose it is:
"We are responsible for conducting [our] business affairs in accordance with all applicable laws and in a moral and honest manner…We want to be proud of [our company] and to know that it enjoys a reputation for fairness and honesty and that it is respected."
Some people invariably think it's their own. Others imagine it to be from Johnson & Johnson, GE or one of the other organizations known to take such things seriously—but it's actually from Enron. Enron's motto, by the way, was "respect, integrity, communication and excellence." Enron's words were as inspirational as everyone else's; its actions, however, were not.
Such exercises show how hard it is to differentiate your own organization by virtue of your description of it. All the good words have already been taken; the key to distinctiveness lies in how people in your organization behave. Nordstrom built its reputation for customer service, for example, not via mission statements and slogans but through its hassle-free response to customer returns and noncustomer returns—by being willing to take back merchandise that didn’t come from one of its stores. Similarly, there
is nothing original about the lofty promises of the U.S. Army to transform enlistees into leaders; however, the organization's behavior in this area, notably its mentoring practices and after-action reviews, have earned it a great reputation for leadership development.
The Bull's-Eye Exercise
One very effective tool to make visions, missions, goals and priorities actionable is the bull's-eye exercise, so named because it is depicted as a three-ringed target. In the outer ring go the goals and initiatives you are trying to make actionable—for example, diversity, empowerment, teamwork, globalization or customer satisfaction. In the innermost ring goes the output of the exercise—that is, descriptions of specific employee behaviors that are deemed necessary to achieve the desired outcomes.
Participants in the exercise (who can be anyone from your management committee to middle- and low-level employees) are asked to imagine themselves at a party a year from now, held to celebrate the remarkable progress your organization has made toward the stated goal. At this imaginary party, your people are asked to identify the behavior changes—in themselves and other employees—that have made your organization so much more global, team-oriented, client-centered or whatever than it was a year ago. Specifically, you ask, "What are people doing more of than they were a year ago, and what are they doing less of?"
The middle ring between the outer circle and the bull's-eye itself reflects the fact that as people begin to identify behaviors, they usually go through an intermediate stage in which they find themselves describing thoughts and emotions instead of actual behaviors. For example, when asked what would change to improve a firm's branding initiative, one team replied, "More respect for our products and services." This is probably accurate, but respect is a "thought" word, not a behavior.
Another team, asked what would have to change to better its empowerment program, said that there would be "less employee fear." This is also accurate, but fear is an emotion, not a behavior. When responses describe thoughts or emotions, ask this follow-up question: "If the workforce had more respect (or less fear), what would people do that they’re not doing now?" Primed in this manner, most people have no trouble hitting the bull's-eye, and after a few experiences with the technique, most groups find it to be an easy and enjoyable exercise.
One interesting pattern I've observed as a result of putting numerous teams through the bull's-eye exercise is that employees almost always identify a greater number of "more of" than "less of" items. Usually, however, the "less of" entries generate the most emotion. Sometimes your employees can't fully articulate what new behaviors are required for your change effort to be successful, but they can sure tell you what behaviors have to stop!
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpted from Reward Systems: Does Yours Measure Up? Copyright (c) 2009 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; All Rights Reserved.