Mission Statements: Why You Might Want One
More retro-thoughts from Boxes and Arrows
(Originally published in 2004 right after I started working at Yahoo!)
I recently started a new job. The group I manage is new and all the people on my team have recently been transferred into this group. Additionally, each person has spent a lot of time in the recent past working on individual, solitary projects, and has not regularly been part of a collaborative team.
Coming into a new company is difficult. Joining a newly-formed team can be even harder. Not only are you new, but the group dynamics are new as well. This is exciting and scary at the same time. There is no shared history or knowledge base to draw from in terms of how people will work together or be successful. On the other hand, the slate is clean and there are fewer possibilities of being compared to what was done on the past.
In an attempt to bring this group together quickly and create a sense of shared purpose, I decided that we needed to develop a mission statement for the team. This is important for a couple of reasons. One, it taps into the “shared vision” mentality and it creates a statement for the rest of the department and company to understand what you are all about. Because the group is new, what we do is still somewhat undefined, and through several conversations with peers and other design staff, I came to realize that the perception of our purpose and place in the overall organization was varied.
Writing a mission statement for a team or department is a challenge. (Shoot, it’s hard to write one for yourself!) But it is a great exercise to go through. Most companies have mission statements, as do many large organizations–they can be equally useful for small teams. The mission statement is deceptively simple-looking. It’s important to try to distill the essence of your message of what you are about down to two or three sentences. The mission statement should tell the story of your ideals. The challenge lies in not to getting caught up in the “we are so great” type of language.
To create my team’s mission, I decided that one of the best methods to bring this team together was a group brainstorm. Together we would try to distill the core attributes that speak to the values and goals of this team. To use the mission both as an internal team building tool and external message that the team believes in, it is important to do this exercise as a team. The conversations and brainstorming and contradicting and negotiations over what is important and what isn’t, is key to ensuring a shared sense of purpose.
I approached the session with three questions to the team:
- “What are we doing now?”
(What has each individual person been responsible for and how does that fit into this new group?)
- “What should we be doing?”
(Trying to think big and capture the sense or purpose and longer term vision.)
- “What are we not?”
(What misconceptions are out there that we need to dispel as far as the role of the group in the organization?)
More formally, these questions translate into:
- Who we are.
- What we do.
- What we stand for.
- Why we do it.
A working session was spent discussing these questions and a whiteboard of lists created. From this raw material, I sat down and tried to draft a coherent mission statement. The statement is about three sentences long and touches upon these key points. I sent the draft out for review and feedback from the team, and went through several rounds of revisions based on their comments.
About halfway through the process, I realized that part of the mission was too specific. So I pulled out a few key phrases and used them to create a set of goals, and specific objectives toward reaching those goals. By pulling the more specific, tangible information out, the mission statement became a high-level, inspiring statement of what this team is, wants to be, and should be responsible for. It is something we can believe in, that expresses our ideals. The mission also sets the stage for the long-term development and growth of the team. Through the mission statement, we are able to reach ahead and put a stake in the ground about higher-level strategic opportunities the team will aspire to.
The mission, together with the goals and objectives that evolved out of the brainstorming session, satisfies the tangible aspect of what we do now as well as the loftier, more strategic aspirations of the team that establish what we stand for and why we do the work we do. It’s a good start, and the team and I will be sharing and evangelizing the message to the rest of the organization over the coming weeks.
Originally published on Boxes and Arrows May 6th, 2004