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Mission Eradicated: A Musing on the Plague of Mission Statements

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Shopping at a mini-mart near my office the other day, I could not help but notice the menagerie of freshly painted signs announcing that this particular Gas n' Sip was: "Redefining the Culture of Customer Care". I feel we've achieved some kind of cultural nadir when even the local mini-mart feels it's necessary to not only have but proudly trumpet that they have a mission, and they're not afraid to state it!

When it comes to mini-marts, about the only mission I feel is really necessary is "Every Tuesday is Two For One Twinkies Day" or, perhaps, "Our staff: not on any Top Ten Most Wanted fugitives list in the contiguous United States." "Tenth cup of coffee always free," is also acceptable, but "Redefining the Culture of Customer Care" is frankly unsettling. I do not go to mini-marts for customer care or culture. Gas. Soda. Gum. In an emergency, cat food. This is all I need, or want, from my local gas station. Anything more feels like undue burden.

What is this Mission Statement Mania that has gripped our nation? Upon walking into a business covered with posters declaring "Revitalizing Customer Satisfaction Through Unparalleled Dedication to the Ten Commandments of Service Commitment," does anyone think "Oh boy, this is going to be the best bank deposit experience ever!"? Has it ever been?

I wanted to write a piece about funny mission statements, but what I quickly realized is that while almost all mission statements are laughable in some way, they're rarely funny. A perfect example is the Mission Statement Generator found on The idea of the Generator is hysterical. They've programmed in every business buzz word you can imagine like "proactively", "seven-habits conforming", "empowerment", and "paradigm shift", and then the little generator spits out complete mission statements, ready for cutting and pasting into your annual report.

The problem is that the mission statements it generates are so spot on, they're not so much funny as depressing. "It is our business to quickly maintain competitive sources while continuing to globally simplify virtual services." "We strive to globally provide access to multimedia based intellectual capital and efficiently simplify effective sources to stay competitive in tomorrow's world." "Our mission is to collaboratively leverage existing high standards in content while promoting personal employee growth." Try to read them, and your mind just kind of slips off of them. They are so replete with meaningful meaningless, the mind cannot get purchase and instead decides to take early vacation.

Since I'm a person who has been employed in the Aughts, I've obviously been obliged to participate in Mission Statement creation for the organization which employs me. Our system has recently begun a new process which not only involves the Library developing a mission and vision statement, but each department developing one as well. The process my department went through coming up with its mission statement was, frankly, painful, and it's still a sore topic amongst some of my colleagues.

One (although by no means the only) problem had to do with the word "enthusiasm". A suggestion was put forward that our department's mission was to do some particular things involving customer service "with enthusiasm", or "enthusiastically". I'd missed the first planning meaning, or else I never would have opened my mouth, but I made the mistake of suggesting that we NOT use the word enthusiasm. My philosophy is that my library (which I like, by the way — I've worked for significantly worse) can ask me to do many things, can require me to do many things but they really can't mandate my feelings about the process. I can make customers my focus. I can produce things in a timely manner. I can constantly strive to deliver goods of the highest quality, but my feelings about those actions are my own, dammit, and if one day I don't feel like being enthusiastic about it, must that be a crime against our mission?

Well, my friends, a shitstorm was unleashed upon my lack of enthusiasm for enthusiasm. I was raining on a parade of blind veterans. I was pissing in orphan's cornflakes. I obviously hated babies and puppies and soldiers and America. I ruined everyone's day, hurt everyone's feelings and totally spoiled everything. In the end, enthusiasm stayed in and I shut my big heartless cruel mouth and now on days when I'm feeling less than fresh I can take heart in the fact that not only am I ruining my own day, I'm failing my department's mission.

Actually, that's BS. I hardly ever think about the mission when I'm doing my job. (D'OH!) If I do consider it, it's usually with an image of RobertDiNiro in The Untouchables in my head. "Enthusiasms … enTHUsiasms … enthusiasms." That's really the problem with Mission Statements. How often can the average person really "live" their company's mission statement in their daily work? Must a person stop in the midst of processing the payroll and think "Am I collaboratively leveraging existing high standards?", like an isometric exercise your doctor insists you do 50 times a day while you're standing at the copier?

Particularly annoying to me are the mission statements which are totally generic, like the one for that poor mini-mart. Nothing identifies "Redefining the Culture of Customer Care" as belonging a mini mart or supermarket. It could just as easily be an ointment factory or a nuclear power plant, although something about it strongly suggests to me a nursing home. Words mean something. If you're going to pick a group of them and label them a mission statement, then either you really like that group of words and want your staff to make them important too, or it's just a bunch of words which might as well have been spit out by Dilbert's machine. If a company really expects their employees to "live" their mission then they need to make a mission statement their employees can actually DO. How is the acne-scarred teenage boy selling me my gum supposed to Redefine the Culture of Customer Care during that process? Do I want him to? Personally, I just want the gum.

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  • Joe Erjavec

    Nice essay! This reminds me of something that happened this weekend.

    I was going through old stuff, and I found a copy of “QBQ! The Question Behind the Question” that was in vogue at a company for which I previously worked.

    I picked it up, and my question was “Why did he write this piece of crap?”

  • Jesse

    I associate this MSS (Mission Statement Syndrome, unrelated to the otherwise documented RACS, Random Acronym Creation Syndrome) with marketing culture. You know the major corporations tend to spend something like 75% of their annual budgets on marketing, with something like 15% or 20% (at most) going to actual product development and manufacturing?

    Our culture is DESPERATE to market itself, and with the illusion of the “hijacked brain” that corporations are always pursuing, we end up with a ridiculous bloated marketing industry full of people who specialize in… let’s see…

    In nothing. In exactly the kinds of things we find in these Mission Statements. Marketers are constantly hired, at exorbitant sums of money, to identify, brand, and sell products and services that they don’t even freaking UNDERSTAND.

    As your essay suggests, it’s an approach without a real product or commitment. It’s a unique corporate cultural phenomenon that eats huge amounts of capital and productivity every day, and in my semi-polite opinion, one of these days it’s gonna come back around and bite us in the ass.

  • Gray Hunter

    I proactively engaged in smilage-inducing facial activity while optically absorbing this fascinating dissertation on the ambiguity of mission-related, culture-saving, vomit-inducing statements enveloping the complete group of corporate managerial paradigms … blah blah blah.

    Yeah, cool article. Check out the book Death Sentences. It’s on this same subject. Very funny.