We focus too much attention on mission statements. Too often they distract us from the real business of bearing down on why and how we’re different, particularly when taken from the customer’s point of view. The mission statement tends to be meaningless, fluffy words.

Here’s a good test: Take your mission statement and ask yourself, honestly, if your competitors’ mission statements couldn’t be exactly the same? Could one of your own team members guess which company is yours if he or she read your  mission statement plus those of four competitors? Most companies’ mission statements are full of promises about excellence, customer experience, and leading-edge technology and such. They don’t mean very much. Words like “excellence,” for example, mean nothing. Define excellence. How would you even know?

Everybody writing a mission statement or even thinking about one ought to spend a few minutes with the on-line Dilbert mission statement generator. Then read Guy Kawasaki’s post How to Change the World: Mantras Versus Missions. Pay special attention to how he suggests mantras might be more useful. This is from that post:

However, you should also create a mantra for your organization. A mantra is three or four words long. Tops. Its purpose is to help employees truly understand why the organization exists.

If I were the CEO of Wendy’s, I would establish a corporate mantra of “healthy fast food.” End of story. Here are more examples of corporate mantras to inspire you:

Federal Express: “Peace of mind”
Nike: “Authentic athletic performance”
Target: “Democratize design”
Mary Kay “Enriching women’s lives”

The ultimate test for a mantra (or mission statement) is if your telephone operators (Trixie and Biff) can tell you what it is. If they can, then you’re onto something meaningful and memorable. If they can’t, then, well, it sucks.

So why bother? Good question. Maybe the mantra is enough, as Guy suggests. But some companies use their mission statements well. They do become part of the background of day-to-day work and long-term strategy development. For those cases, if you’re really going to use a mission statement, then I say you should also remember three points a good mission statement should cover.

  1. What are you doing for your customers? Let’s hope this is something that sets you apart, makes you different and that your customers will recognize.
  2. What are you doing for your employees? Fair compensation, good tools, professional development, encouragement or whatever. If you’re serious about it, put it in the mission statement. If it’s in the mission statement, get serious about it.
  3. What does the company do for its owners? Don’t apologize for needing profits to stay in business or for generating return on investment for those who invested. Say it as part of your mission statement.

If at this point you’re still looking at developing a mission statement, then I recommend Writing a Mission Statement on Bplans.com.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.