Your mission: A story well told

This is a story with a happy ending. It’s about communicating the missions of our projects. It’s also a story about fish.

First, before we get started, we should clear up the difference between mission and vision:

Classically, a mission statement tells you the fundamental purpose of the organization; it is about now.

A vision statement tells you what the project wants to be, or how it wants the world to be if the mission is achieved; it concentrates on the future.

It is commonly accepted though to see a mix of the terms values, mission, vision, philosophy or credo to refer to an organization’s statement of purpose.

And second, we should let history add a bit of context to our story. The origin of the word “mission” is from the mid 16th century and referred to the sending of the Holy Spirit into the world, derived from the Latin word “mittre”, meaning “send”. Today, five centuries later, we can pencil the word’s definition as: a strongly felt aim, ambition, or calling.

That sets things up rather nicely, doesn’t it.

The beginning

In the beginning there was a project.

But before the project became a reality, it was first an idea. An idea with a notion to create, change, effect or produce something. When this idea matures into a project with a clear purpose, then it needs a plan to achieve its particular aim, or, in other words, to achieve its ‘mission’.

In the formulation of any plan, the statement of mission should be the second item scribed, be it on parchment or an iPad, right after the name of the project, organization or business. It should clearly and boldly state what a project does and what it intends to achieve ­­— its mission or reason for existing.

All people that come into contact with any project should know what its mission is.

The goal is to inform and inspire the workers as well as the greater society to participate in this mission, and feel good about it.

For the internal structure of a project, clear communication and understanding of the mission is essential in order to establish objectives, formulate strategies, manage resources, motivate members of the team and measure success. A mission statement is the most visible and public part of a project’s strategic plan.

One of the most frequently cited and clear definitions of a mission statement was written in 1982 by a specialist in strategic management and entrepreneurship, Mr. John Pearce, who calls it: a broadly defined but enduring statement of purpose that distinguishes the organization from others of its type, and identifies the scope of its operations in terms of product (service/activity) and market (user/community).

A very early example of a business mission statement is from 1903 by the Ford Motor Company who made their message as famous as it was short: “Ford will democratize the automobile”.  Over 100 years later, the title of the company’s longer 2011 statement is this: “One mission, one team, one plan, one goal”. Things change and so do missions, often a very intelligent sign of evolution.

The elements

If one begins to look around, there is a veritable sea of literature on mission statements, what their function is, and what their defining elements should be. There is an entire ocean of content, massive bodies of water wrapping themselves around different languages and continents. While I was recently paddling about in that deep blue water, a few very big fish kept appearing and reappearing, and since big fish usually manage to grab my attention, I made note. One of those fish is named Mr. Andrew Campbell, director of London’s Ashridge Strategic Management Centre.  He has dedicated much of his professional career to studying mission statements, and his framework has come to be known around the world as the Ashridge Mission Model.

This model can be used to create or analyze a mission, ‘sense’ of mission and mission statement. The Ashridge model integrates two historic schools to determine a mission: the strategic school where a mission is seen as the first step in the strategy process, defining commercial rational and target market; and the cultural/philosophical/ethics school where an expression of mission serves to nourish cooperation between team members and helps an organization to function as a collective unity.

The model contains four elements, according to the big fish Mr. Campbell, that fit together in a flexible and overlapping order, and, I the little fish, will add — that help to tell a story:

1. Purpose – the inspiration for all people involved, internally and externally.

2. Strategy – the logic of a project’s development, commercial or non-commercial.

3. Values – the beliefs and moral principles that are behind the project, uniting the personal values of the workers to the project’s values.

4. Behavior – the internal guidelines that help people make decisions on a day-to-day basis.

Throughout the waves of literature and opinion about the creation of mission statements, there is no single formula agreed upon. Recipes range from a simple sentence to several paragraphs or pages in length.* Given the amount of writing on the subject, mission statements have been the focus of surprisingly few rigorous academic studies.

The impact

There is, however, a small lagoon of research on mission statements and the correlation of their language content to the lifespan of an organization. And albeit small, it does give us a place to rest, take off the floaties and fins, stop paddling madly about, and stand up in lovely knee-deep water. Thanks to the team of a 2001 study, the mission statements of 162 companies in the USA were content-analyzed and correlated with organization longevity using the 4-element content framework of purpose, strategy, values and behavior.

The results are very interesting and give us a wonderful opportunity to learn something valuable. The results indicated that only those messages that describe “social responsibility” were significantly related to company longevity. In other words, the mission statements that communicate a sense of social responsibility —how the organization fits into and contributes to the world— are positively related to the lifespan of the organization.

Excellent, so what now? We have a bit of history, a framework, and the conclusion of a study.

It’s time for the story to fully emerge.

The story

We tell stories because, as human beings, that is how we organize our learning, our thinking, our relationships to other people and to society. Our human history is a continuum of the creation and transmission of stories and narratives.

Storytelling is an event shared by storyteller and story listeners and it is the interaction of the two that makes a story come to life. Throughout time, stories have been spoken, sung, carved, painted, written, printed, and recorded in audio, film and digital media.

A statement of mission can be seen as the way we frame the story of our project for ourselves and for our team. It tells of a strongly felt aim, ambition, or calling; it tells the story of people doing something for a purpose. The story of a mission can also help our audience to engage with our projects and to frame the experience for themselves, and, if inspired, for others.

These ideas then evoke the questions of how we would like the story of our project (enterprise, organization, government) to be framed, how we want the story to be told, why our project exists, and how it contributes to the world.

A mission statement, if well communicated, can guide people; it can be the story line that builds the motivation and strategy for our project’s movement and success. It also gives others the concept and language-content they need to understand what our project does, and how to talk about it with others. What better promotion or marketing could one ask for?

A living example

As we bring this particular tale to a close, I propose that we create a mission statement, right now, for a lovely restaurant that doesn’t have one, or at least I couldn’t find it on their menu, outdoor promotional board, business card or print advertising. And I think they should have one. It would help to create a sense of loyalty with the clients as well as make it easier to transmit their story to others. So, let’s give them one.

To guide us in writing this statement, I have chosen a simple formula that answers three key questions. Next to the main question, I will also identify the Ashridge model’s elements of purpose, strategy, values, behavior, to keep in line with tradition. The actual word “mission” does not have to be in the wording, this is a personal choice that hinges on the project context and desired tone.

Here is the framework I have chosen:

1) Describe what the project does.

2) Describe how it is done.

3) Tell why it is being done.

Step by step:

What this project does —purpose, behavior.

“Our restaurant prepares a blend of traditional and creative Mediterranean cuisine served in an intimate candle lit atmosphere”.

How it is done —strategy, values, behavior.

“We use the freshest, local, organic ingredients available to keep life healthy and thriving in our community.”

Why they do it —values, behavior.

“We believe that the joy of dining is truly one of life’s greatest pleasures”.

The last step is to put the mission statement to work, and this involves the staff, the volunteers, the board, the shareholders, and all targeted communities. It can be communicated on websites, blogs, menus, business cards and chalkboards; it can be used in an ‘elevator pitch’, mentioned in online business and social networks and woven into conversations with staff, clients, at fundraisers, conferences, with providers, and people from the community.

And here it is:

“Our restaurant prepares a blend of traditional and creative Mediterranean cuisine served in an intimate, candle lit atmosphere. We use the freshest, local, organic ingredients available to keep life healthy and thriving in our community. We believe that the joy of dining is truly one of life’s greatest pleasures”.

Now, their project is framed within the simple narrative of a story. And because of that, we, the clients, can begin to identify with it and connect to it. Like this:

“Mmm”, she murmurs as she reads the menu by the soft light of candles, reflections dancing in the crystal atop the linen covered table. “I think I’ll have the fresh fish”, she says to her friend.

“I know, it’s a bit expensive”, she thinks to herself as the waiter carefully fills her tilted glass with cava, “but I am helping out the local farmers and merchants, and I think that’s really important. And, well, delicious food is truly one of my greatest pleasures”.

This is the story that she will now tell to others, and this is the very same story that the staff and owners of the restaurant feel good about at the end of a very long day of work.

Their mission has come to life.

The end.

*After writing this article, I felt the need to review the mission statement of this blog and I made some slight changes. It’s never too early or too late.

I would love to know if anything similar happens for you.

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