I once worked for an organization that actively disdained mission and vision statements. While I don’t have a lot of tolerance for touchy-feely kinds of organizational activities, even so, when I joined this organization this stance was a little shocking to me. When I asked why, the response was, “Who we are and what we’re supposed to do is obvious. We don’t need to spend time developing a mission statement.”
Without a mission statement, vision and goals, how did we know if we were focused on the right things? People are generally good about working on good things to do but they’re not necessarily the right things to do, let alone, the right things to do right now.
In our IT department, it turns out that we could have used something akin to a mission or vision statement. Primarily, we provided service to the rest of the organization, but we also provided extramural services to other organizations. The latter were often sexy, high profile projects, but it detracted from our “primary mission” – to service our local constituents. It led to a lot of contention and stress within our own department, as well as with our main clients – other parts of the organization, who felt that they were being ignored for sexy outside partnerships.
If you’re in a startup, lacking a clear mission, vision, and goals is just death. In more than one startup I worked for, we ended up “stretching” our product and services to win customers outside what we had originally been building. I referred to these deals as either “expensive money” or “stupid money”, depending on how badly we bastardized what we were doing.
Mission statements are also important because they give you the context for setting organizational, departmental and personal goals. They help you answer, and justify questions like: Why are we doing this? What goal is it helping to move forward?
The reality is that every decision you make during your work day is an implied choice about whether you are going to spend time and resources in support of a key goal or something that falls short. “I have a few hours before my next meeting. Should I work on X or should I work on Y?” Should we pursue this IT project or that one? Should we spend money fixing this thing or wait and invest in that thing?
Mission statements, visions, and goals shouldn’t be highly crafted and filled with obtuse purple prose. Keep them simple and honest, something folks can relate to, and easily keep in mind. That way, it’s easier for folks to make work decisions in that context.
Imagine you’re on a family vacation. Your vision might be to raise kids who respect and appreciate the environment. You overall goal for the vacation might be “We’re driving North to Alaska and our want to hit at least 5 different National Parks on the way so our kids are exposed to different kinds nature.” (This particular analogy may be too “tree-huggy” for you, but it works well as an example.) As you drive along, every time a potential interesting side trip gets raised by one of the kids, you can look to see if it’s generally taking you northward towards Alaska or causing you to backtrack to the South-East. Keeping that vision and goal in mind, you may legitimately decide to head East for a while because, “Yes, we’re not headed North or to a National Park, but it’s stinkin’ hot out, and if we don’t take these kids to a Water Park to cool off, we’ll all kill each other!” At least you consciously understand the implications and trade-offs of making that detour.
Without this perspective you always end up favoring the squeakiest wheels (whiniest kid?), the most politically savvy groups, the easy wins, or the projects you’ve justified to yourself as being the best. You can easily end up over-focusing on easy wins (or even the most important client’s needs) while tackling a more subtle endeavor would have moved the entire organization forward further and faster. Without those big directional arrows telling you which way you should be headed, you have no foundation on which to prioritize where your group spends its time and energy.
Periodically you should consult your organizational map (those vision and goals statements) because you don’t want to end up like Bugs Bunny, telling yourself, “I should have turned left at Albuquerque!”