Mission Statements

These days, most organizations—businesses, universities, churches, non-profits, and the various departments, committees, etc., within them—write mission statements. The statements are supposed to articulate the essence or purpose of the organization and thereby guide its activities. That mission statements are a good idea is generally taken as a given.

Aside from some conglomerates who had plainly lost their way, however, and needed to sell off some unrelated businesses that were rather thoughtlessly acquired, I have never seen a mission statement do much good. Most organizations know what they are doing already. Articulating it is usually a waste of time.

The literature of the church growth movement, for example, abounds with exhortations to write a mission statement and drop activities that do not accord with it. Rick Warren’s books, The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church, make that their central theme, as their titles suggest. But not once do Warren and his fellow travelers give an example of an activity churches ought to stop performing.

Indeed, mission statements have all the advantages of design over evolution. That is to say, they have some advantages for some organizations, but they also have serious disadvantages. Most of the time, they do nothing; they articulate what everyone knew anyway. Some may help an organization focus on its essential goals and shed unnecessary parts and activities.

Some, however, almost certainly mischaracterize an organization, picking out certain elements and privileging them over other essential features of the enterprise. Consider the Mary Kay mission statement: “To give unlimited opportunity to women.” No cosmetics here! One might think the organization is a women’s college. Or consider 3M: “To solve unsolved problems innovatively.” One might think of a group of mathematicians working on Goldbach’s conjecture. Most remarkable, perhaps, is Disney’s mission: “To make people happy.” Jeremy Bentham would be delighted—but would also have no idea what business Disney was in.

The more serious problem, however, is precisely that of central planning as opposed to the free market. Organizations are to some extent consciously organized, but they are also to some extent self-organized. They evolve in various ways, some of which may be counterproductive but some of which may be essential to the success of the enterprise. Mission statements assert the dominance of conscious organization over self-organization. That tends to make organizations more top-down and thus less flexible, less adaptive, less capable of using the expertise and insights of those within the organization to handle change.

It’s obvious why someone at the top of an organization would want it to become more top-down. It’s less obvious why employees, shareholders, members, etc., should share that desire.

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