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Mission Statement Considerations

By Michael Crow, Ph.D., Director, IRPA

Organizational planning is preceded by a good "mission statement." It focuses attention, challenges attitudes, introduces alternatives, and addresses existential issues. A good mission statement helps to capture the attention of stakeholders (common crisis, threat, opportunity), unfreeze attitudes and behavior patterns (creating cognitive dissonance), introduce or foster change patterns (by introducing benchmarking and other comparisons), and refreeze new attitudes, behavior patterns (reinforcement theory).

The mission statement is "...an enduring statement of purpose that distinguishes one business from other similar firms."1 Accordingly, a good mission statement should include language that helps to discriminate one organization from another; it should show how an organization is distinctive; what advantages does it offers to clients in contrast to services offered by competitors. In short, how is this organization really different and better for clients than others with which it competes?

Without a sound mission statement, blind forces of fate or academic drift and erosion shape the purpose of an educational institution. The organization limps along, attempting to do and be everything for everyone, with no limits, no parameters, and no focus of attention. Lacking focus, organizational energies become dissipated over more functions than can can be adequately served. Operating with finite resources, the organization finds itself host to an excessive number of functions all languishing under starvation diets. In time, the lack of a focused purpose and a collapsed consensus kills all pretense of excellence.  Excellence itself can survive only in an organization committed to a strong purpose.

Good mission statements can improve an institutionís2:
        1. sense of purpose
        2. communication
        3. decision-making
        4. resource allocation
        5. evaluation
        6. marketing

What resources does a "mission statement" shape? Just about everything! It will affect who gets to use the university's stuff to do which activities and for what purpose? Understanding community needs, environmental threats, situational opportunities, strategic planning--all are determined in the shadow of a mission statement. Eventually the budget, space, staff, time, students, curriculum, pedagogy -- every component of the organization -- will all be affected by it.

Five keys to a great mission statement have been identified:

1. Employs less than 100 words, sharply focused (so everyone knows it--clearly). The Test: Can people selected randomly across campus recite the mission statement on request and are the recitations congruent?

2. Describes what functions the organization does (identifies a distinctive core competency). The Test:  Exactly what functions have people in the organization decided not to do or provide to clients that are provided by real competitors?

3. Identifies for whom the functions are done (specify a specific market). The Test: Exactly which possible clients have people in the organization decided not to serve through this organization and why?  Do members of the organization understand and agree to this?
        a.  Say how the organization fills the functions better (craft a competitive advantage)
        b. Justify why the organization exists (an existential issue)

In crafting a mission statement, use precise, exact statements of measurable activity! Avoid vague generalities and the un-measurable. Address functional benefits to users or clients rather than descriptive attributes of the organization itself. Think about the organization from the perspective of a potential user who has alternatives available, rather than an insider with a vested interest in the organization.

Usually, what's developed depends on how it is developed. Who is included in the group framing the mission are critical. In crafting a mission statement, there is no neutral process, no perfect process, and no one right way. Instead, there are many ways with many attributes and many consequences. For example, all the following have been used, with varying results:

1. Administrative Mandates: Leaders (or owners) tell the organization what its mission is.

        Advantages: Efficient, focused, fast
        Disadvantages: May foster rebellion and/or passive resistance; may not be believed

2. Single Task Force: A small group with a formal mandate is appointed to study the context, develop a mission for the whole, and spread it to others.
        Advantages: Efficient; focused, relatively fast; strong chance of creativity and innovation
        Disadvantages: Lacks grass-roots commitment; may be superficial & imperialistic when rushed.

3. Stakeholder Groups: A larger "Noah's Arc" committee including all vested interests is identified to mold a consensus about organization's mission.
        Advantages: Widely inclusive; strongly legitimating; high credibility
        Disadvantages: Functionally fragmented; lacks production focus; may be self-serving or turf-protecting; unlikely to sponsor change or  innovation

4. Production Unit Groups: Folks working together in an organizational unit are charged to determine the mission of their own work
        Advantages: Fosters work-related consensus among insiders, strong task commitment possible
        Disadvantages: Time consuming; less innovative; producer perspective limits client focus; omits key stakeholders; maybe self-serving or turf-protecting

5. Survey Technique: A survey is developed & administered to interested persons; results used to determine current state of mission
        Advantages: Widely inclusive; objective; fosters analytical rigor; source of great reports or publications
        Disadvantages: Mechanical; neither consensus nor commitment is formed among stakeholders; unlikely to lead to change or innovation

6. Delphi Technique:
        Advantages: Widely inclusive; analytical rigor; develops consensus; can influence change and innovation
        Disadvantages: Mechanical, slow, redundant; drains energy; commitment may not be fostered

Who might participate in the mission formulation, besides the obvious teaching faculty? Consider including each of the following stakeholder groups also:
    1. Service recipients-- Current & past students
    2. Student providers-- Enrollment mgmt. staff
    3. Resource providers-- Business / personnel staff, vendors
    4. Facility maintainers- -Computer service / custodial/ maintenance / safety staff
    5. Student supporters- -Housing / counseling / health/ bookstore staff
    6. University advocates- -Employers, churches, politicians. civic leaders

In reviewing mission statements, keep in mind who are the institutionís biggest competitors? And, does the institution enjoy "brand recognition?" and is that recognition positive or negative? Why? Is the institution's name widely recognized?  Does the institutionís name connote student benefits? Is it a symbol of learned values? Does it imply talented graduates? Does it mean valued connections? How different is the institution from competitors? Do people stand in line to get to the institution? What place does the institution hold in the popular mind?
1. Pearce, J. (1982), "The Company Mission as a Strategic Tool." SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW, 15:15-24.
2. Peeke (1994), MISSION AND CHANGE, Society for Research in Higher Education.

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