The importance of your mission statement

Written by
Changeboard Team

03 Aug 2017

03 Aug 2017 • by Changeboard Team

In Mumbai, India, a city of 17 million people, fast food has a unique meaning. Every workday, about five thousand “dabbawalas,” or “lunch-box people,” deliver nearly a quarter-million home-cooked lunches to workers around this vast, tumultuous city – at high speed and without error.

As Sarah Sturtevant writes in her Marketing Masala blog: “The mission of the dabbawalas is not couched in flowery words like so many other corporate mission statements. Their simple goal is to serve their customers accurately and on time, every time.” They also have a unique value proposition: Unlike fast food chains, they bring a hot lunch right to you, no matter where you are.

People with a simple, unique, powerful mission are the most engaged people. Yet the whole notion of “mission” has produced a lot of cynicism. There are two reasons for that:

  • Too many mission statements are meaningless platitudes
  • People in the organisation don’t live up to the mission

Find and articulate the voice of your organisation

Say the phrase “mission statement,” and many people roll their eyes. Contests are held online for the worst mission statement. According to Gallup, 70% of US workers are disengaged – unimpressed and uninterested in their company’s mission. Why are most mission statements just back room jokes? Because we’re trying to engage people’s passions and talents in a mission they have no passion for, and no involvement in.

Yet, there is nothing more powerful than the passions that drive people. Tap into those, and you create an unstoppable force. But management often boils out all the passion to reduce it to a mediocre mission statement, and that’s where cynicism comes from.

While your true mission will be unique, in broad strokes they all sound something like this: We are going where no other people can go because no other people are like us. No one else has the unique combination of talent, passion, and conscience that drives us. No one else can make the contribution we can make.

The dabbawalas are like that. They are intensely proud of the service they have given for more than a century. Other great companies are like that, too. Passion for the mission governs everything they do. According to Mark Zuckerberg: “Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.” The company therefore draws people who have the energy for that mission.

Designing an engaging mission

The mission should be the collective voice of the people in your organisation, not just the leader’s voice. The principle of “no involvement, no commitment” clearly applies to the creation of a mission statement. If you want everyone to own the mission, it has to reflect their thinking, express their potential, and appeal to their souls.

  • Begin by evaluating the mission of your team or organisation:
  • Talent. Are you leveraging the irreplaceable talents of team members?
  • Passion. Do they approach their job with energy and determination, or do they just go through the motions?
  • Conscience. Is your organisation doing what it should do? Are you tapping into people’s innate desire to be socially responsible?
  • Need. What is the specific job your internal and external customers are hiring you to do? The job you are being hired to do is very different from a job description. It requires careful stakeholder analysis

In today’s world, a leader has a moral imperative to connect the “why” behind the “what” to meaningfully engage their talent. This is most powerfully accomplished by thoughtful and deliberate design.

Get aligned with the mission

What’s the second reason people are cynical about the company mission statement? The company is so often misaligned with it. The grand pronouncements don’t line up with the things people are asked to do every day. In short, managers and leaders don’t walk the talk.

Every core process needs to support the mission in a simple, visible, and consistent way. Think of the core process in the dabbawala organisation. After collecting the lunchboxes between nine and ten in the morning, they pack them onto trolleys and push them to the railway stations. The boxes go by train to a central station for unloading, then color-coded so they end up in a similar destination as other boxes. At the receiving station, the dabbawalas load the boxes onto their trademark silver bicycles. They only have their bicycles, the coded boxes, and the city train system as a resource. And then in the afternoon they reverse the process, picking up the empty boxes and returning them to the residents.

After studying the dabbawalas’ core processes, Forbes compared it to a Six Sigma process, which means the lunchbox men make only one error in every sixteen million transactions. According to the professionals who evaluated their system, the dabbawalas’ process works so well because it is simple, visible, and consistent.

Everyone, from the youngest dabbawala to the chairman of the association, can describe the simple process. The dabbawalas know exactly where they are going 100% of the time.

What about your core processes? What could you do to simplify your processes? Make them more visible? Make them more consistent with the mission of the organisation and consistent in execution? In the end, people will never engage with a “mission” that is not a mission, that is meaningless corporate-speak.