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“Maximise shareholder value”,

“The number one in the market”,

“Excellent customer service”,

“Raising the Standard”,

“Bringing Excellence to the Surface.”,

“..company most admired for its people, partnership and performance.”

These are all mission statements for companies.  yet when you ask, as an employee, “So what do I do now?”  the answer is quite difficult.

The curse of knowledge: the ten thousand and six word problem

Dan and Chip Heath in Made to Stick, refer to the  “Curse of knowledge”.  I call it the 10,006 word problem. (The ten thousand and six word problem)

A management team get together to discuss the strategy and purpose.  After considering lots of information (The knowledge) and discussing it using perhaps several days (10,000 words) they boil it down to a simple statement.

The catch is they have boiled away all the detail, all the water, until all you have left is the salty residue in the bottom of the pan.  The water has all gone.  You cannot swim in sea salt, you have to have some water left, otherwise you can’t swim.

The “So, what do I do now?” test

So many of these mission statements lack any clue for action. The “So what do I now do” test?

“Use our pioneering spirit to responsibly deliver energy to the world.”  (Conoco).  Now this would help if we knew what pioneering spirit was.  Does that help a teller in a petrol station?  A Manager of a refinery?  I am not sure.  It might help the exploration people, if there clues and examples of what pioneering means.  I hope it does not mean stealing land from the native Americans.

Actionable statements

Lets take a different statement:   “Employ the best, and trust them”

Now this is clearly actionable.  It tells you how managers should behave and what they should do.  It is also a narrower scope.

So the trick here is to avoid the 10,000 words reduced to 6.  Explain much more fully the nuances and detail behind the idea.  People are not stupid (See the ten heresies of communicating strategy) .  Avoid the glib statement and the need for managers and staff to “mind read” what went on.  Explain things.

The trick is to tell stories that bring the message to life: To find examples that illuminate the message and guide people’s actions.  To find ways to create the corporate culture so that the message is clearer and carries with it the embellishments.  These stories already exist in your organisation.  They are the stories of the founders, of successful managers and executives, of how new products were developed, new customers found and existing customers served exceptionally.

If you choose to develop a mission statement (and be clear what a mission statement tries to communicate) then make sure you can elaborate with stories and anecdotes so people get the wider picture.

And make it actionable.