David Weinberger
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KM: Why do we care?

01 May 1999

It's way too easy to make fun of mission statements. Of course, that doesn't stop me. But when I did so recently -- at http://www.cluetrain.com/clues.html -- a couple of readers responded in useful ways, i.e., slamming me silly.

Mission statements, intending to be simple presentations of the corporate concept and values, are actually quite complex in their role.

Some mission statements are directed out to customers and prospects. That's why they don't contain the words "and make us filthy rich." Instead they talk about how the company will help its customers succeed. This successfully blinds customers to the shoddy products, arrogant developers and shifty salespeople, but only if your mission is to sell worthless crap to particularly stupid companies.

Mission statements are also intended to focus the company internally. They are part of a conceptual hierarchy that mirrors the power hierarchy (excuse me, org chart). At the top is the mission statement. And it begat the strategy. And the strategy begat the tactics. And the tactics begat the objectives that begat the tasks that begat the people in cubicles who no longer beget children because they're besitting all weekend trying to finish the !@#$-ing assignments they've been given to serve the all-powerful mission statement.

Of course, in most instances the corporate mission statement is so broad (to allow for maximum wriggle room when it comes to implementing it) that there's no real connection between the mission and the work of the hands of the company.

Mission statements are vapid because they think of business as a march to a goal or a war of conquest. Businesses are far more complex than that. And in the Web world, the landscape is shifting so quickly that fixing on a mission is often a formula for failure.

Further, missions are things you accomplish and are done with. Businesses, on the other hand, generally aim for long-term existence. The Board doesn't get together and say, "Well, we've accomplished our mission of being the world's leading supplier of high quality wombats to blind gombricks, so I guess we can just shut it all down now. Good job, lads!"

Businesses often are more like farming than like making war. How can we get maximum sustainable yield from this ground? And what happens when the ground changes radically? Are we going to keep trying to grow potatos in the layer of ash, or are we going to see this as a splendid opportunity to succeed with ash-loving radishes?

So, yes, write up something about your commitment to treating your customers well, building great products, and contributing to the lives of your employees and your community. Heck, even admit that you're in it for the money. But one thing is certain: if your mission statement achieves the usual goal of fitting on the back of a business card, then it's just about guaranteed to be empty of anything worth saying.

And, by the way, if you want to know where to find the *real* corporate point of view and values, look to the stories that are told over beer. If your mission statement doesn't seem like a summary of those stories, then you know you got it wrong