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Mission statements: The good, the bad, the forgotten

May 12, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A good mission statement is a brief, powerful description of an organization's purpose. Unfortunately, most corporate and IT mission statements are boring and forgettable expressions of motherhood and apple pie. Many are so vague and generalized that they could be used for almost any corporate entity. Others are just uninspiring collections of buzzwords.

Here are some of the things effective mission statements should do:

Send a message clearly and concisely. They should be short enough to remember, without sacrificing the substance of the message. Google's powerful mission is only nine words: "To facilitate access to information for the entire world." Long, detailed statements leave the reader overwhelmed. Barnes & Noble's mission statement is nearly two-thirds the length of the Gettysburg Address — and far less memorable.

Inspire. A good mission should be a rallying cry for the organization. President Kennedy established the entire space program with one sentence: "This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth." NASA adopted this as its mission statement for the Apollo project.

Drive transformation. An organization in the midst of change can use a new mission statement to communicate its future directions. One retailer's IT mission, "Deliver IT services globally," seems superficial, but it succinctly describes the essence of the company's transformation. The word "deliver" acknowledges its move from in-house development and operations to selectively outsourcing IT functions. "IT services" indicates its migration from custom applications to using packaged applications and the software- as-a-service model. "Globally" recognizes the required shift in its customer base, from domestic to worldwide.

Differentiate your market position. Good mission statements should also differentiate the organization from its competitors. CVS states: "We will be the easiest pharmacy retailer for customers to use." In a market threatened by giants like Wal-Mart and Costco, "easiest" reflects CVS's choice to focus on service, not price.

Pull the corporation into the future. In 1985, Computerworld reported that Bill Gates' vision was "to get a workstation running our software onto every desk and eventually in every home." At that point in history, that declaration was often perceived as brash and audacious, but it turned out to be an excellent (and prophetic) mission statement for the fledgling company.

Enable trade-offs. Good mission statements should help establish priorities. In 1980, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) was hemorrhaging money. It created a new mission, "To become the best airline in the world for the frequent business traveler." Processes were eliminated (including the tourist travel department), unless they directly supported business travelers. SAS determined that business travelers wanted multiple choices of flights. Other airlines converted to larger, more fuel-efficient Airbus planes, forcing a reduction in the number of flights they could offer, but SAS maintained its full schedule by continuing to use smaller DC-9s. In 1983, SAS was named "Airline of the Year," Fortune magazine declared it the "best airline for business travelers," and it became highly profitable.

Guide daily behavior. A mission statement should help direct the way employees operate. Ritz-Carlton's goal of providing "extraordinary customer service" empowers front-line employees to solve most customer problems without seeking supervisor approval. Its consistent focus on customer service has won Ritz-Carlton the coveted Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award twice.

A good mission statement helps create a compelling vision of the future for an organization. Use it to enhance your organization's effectiveness by providing clarity of purpose, inspiration and motivation, as well as a vehicle for enabling transformation.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

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