Have you ever tried to get a job done, grabbing what everyone tells you is the correct tool only to find the whole experience a terrible mess? You re-read the instructions, looked at other people’s examples, and maybe brought in an expert to help.
Ultimately, despite best efforts, you’re still left with a polished mess that gets put in the corner and only brought out for special guests.
So there you have it – the process of creating a vision, mission and values statement. Surely there must be something better.
Hang on! The vision, mission and value statements are the cornerstones of strategy and planning. Almost every strategy workshop will start with either reviewing them or creating these statements. It’s impossible to read a piece of literature related to business or strategy and not have the development of such statements or the quoting of them at the core of the whole process. Many a consultant has made a living purely by helping businesses to define and refine them.
Or more to the point. Why take great ideas and force them it into a rigid structure?
Dumb stuff sneaks into business thinking.
I’ve struggled to find the origin of this critical part of business thinking – somewhere in the 1950–1970s from military or government documents? With the rise of strategy in business, it took hold and has never let go. However, a review of management literature shows little evidence to support the use of a mission statement either regarding improving the financial performance or other key business metrics.
An extensive literature review by B Bartkus et al. found no strong empirical link between mission statements and financial performance (Mission Statement Quality And Financial Performance, European Management Journal Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 86–94, February 2006).
Research that sheds a more positive light on mission statements still struggles to find a consistent relationship but instead highlight that effective resource management is linked to superior performance (C. K. Bart, & M. C. Baetz 1998. The relationship between mission statements and firm performance: An exploratory study. Journal of Management Studies, 35, 823–853).
Unfortunately, most value statements hold even less value than mission statements (excuse the pun). The majority simply describing common good practices for how to treat employees and service customers – you could take the value statements of hundreds of well-respected businesses – mix them all up, and I suspect that neither the customers nor the leaders who work within the businesses would pick the difference.
Visions statements are, unfortunately, also not much different. The following is a typical scenario. A conference for the leadership team used to come up with a single sentence to describe the future of a whole organisation. The final wording is achieved through consensus (i.e. the path of least resistance).
It’s a flawed approach with a flawed result.
Having a clear understanding of where the business is headed is critical and drives everything – it’s the aspirational heart of the business and the brand. This is called “envisioning the future” – it’s where the business owners (not a committee) want the business to be in 5 or 10 years.
But why this needs to be squeezed into a single statement has not been established or proven to be more efficient.
Ultimately, the research draws me to the conclusion that the only benefit from the current practice of writing a vision, mission and values statement is information predictability. In particular, the approach allows investors to quickly scan what a company is about and compare it to another.
So unless you’re looking for external investors, then the benefit is minimal.
This is not an attempt to belittle the importance of communicating what is important but disputes the need to take great ideas and shoehorn them into a set communication formula.
Bring on the manifesto
So ditch using the traditional vision, mission and values formula and with the manifesto – it’s more flexible, personal, and easier to apply.
Remove the rules, and the process of envisioning the future and talking about what you are passionate about flourishes. Stop killing creativity with a template.
What’s the difference?
The manifesto term comes from the Italian word of the same spelling, meaning “public declaration explaining past actions and announcing the motive for forthcoming ones.” (www.dictionary.com/browse/manifesto).
It is simply a series of statements that act as a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives, as one issued by a person or organisation.
The key difference between the traditional statements and a manifesto is the flexibility (removing the formulaic approach) and the taking on a much more personal reference point and tone of voice.
At a practical level, the shift in freedom makes a huge difference – no longer fixated with conforming to rules, the focus shifts back to your passions, the future and your aspirational ideas (such as why you started the business in the first place).
It also can be practically applied. Look at the two key groups that could and should make the most of these documents.
Employees, for example. They will, in general, take one look at a collection of vision/mission/value statements – nod their head and completely forget it the moment they have walked (or run) out of the room.
Customers will be the same. Putting the same document in front of your customers will have an even less inspiring reaction.
It just does not work for anyone other than the consultant you helped create it. However, several beautifully well-written lines in a manifesto can inspire employees and communicate to customers exactly what they can expect from a business.
Suggestions for writing a manifesto
The first and most important point is that there are no exact rules. However, following some general guidelines and thinking strategically about what you wish to achieve through your manifesto will help.
A few suggestions;
- Start with the deep underlying purpose which drives you.
- Envision the future. Don’t just write in terms of business today. Close your eyes and imagine what the business would look like in 5 or 10 years.
- Make it personal. Try starting with words like “I / We Believe.”
- Get passionate about the core of your business and describe it – give everyone absolute clarity about what resides in the businesses heart.
- What behaviours make up the essential parts of the business and are non-negotiable?
- Put yourself in the minds of your customer’s first experience – what do you want to impart?
- What do you promise to stand by regarding deliverables?
- If your business made the front page of a local newspaper, what types of things would it say?
A nice filter or strategic tool to apply to your manifesto is to ask what would happen if you reverse the statements. Would it still be a valid option, even if it’s one you would not wish not to follow?
As an example.
Instead of offering “great service”, the reverse would be to offer “terrible service” – a silly statement indeed. Therefore it applies that offering great service is a given and as a statement holds little value strategically. If you find your manifesto filled with such statements, it may be better to remove or replace them with more valuable ones.
On the other hand, offering “hand-crafted goods” (vs. the reverse ‘mass-produced”) is far more relevant as a statement since both options are perfectly valid (but opposing) ways of competing in the marketplace.
For more reading, jump to a nice article, “The first question to ask of any strategy” by Rodger Martin, written in the HBR.
A few other comments
Give it time – if you think this will happen in an afternoon workshop, you are not doing the process justice. Take your time, write notes, talk and bounce ideas off colleagues. Read what other people have written for inspiration.
What’s your style – think about the style of how you would like to communicate this. My research has found examples that were highly descriptive, taking several hundred words. Others were just a collection of concise and clear sentences. Written well, both styles can work. What about your tone of voice. Is it serious, humorous, relaxed, etc.?
Be honest – writing just what your “target” market might want to hear really means you’ve completely missed the point.
Keep in simple – complexity only leads to confusion for everyone.
Make it public – otherwise, why bother?
Don’t be afraid to let a wordsmith/copywriter give it a final polish – a good one will improve clarity without changing your intent.
At the core of your businesses behaviour lies a brand promise – what it will deliver to customers. Your brand promise is the intersection point between what your business communicates and what it delivers. And the simplest method to achieve perfect alignment between this is for everyone, both internal and external stakeholders, to be reading off the same page.
A well-written manifesto will allow this to happen.
Acting as a central hub to guide the businesses activities without constraining strategic thinking and simultaneously communicating to customers what they can expect and will be delivered by the brand.
Most brand strategy documents are a bunch of waffle, but a great manifesto can be the opposite.
And there, you have a snapshot of the benefits of a manifesto. But don’t just read this and move on. Start typing and making notes, see where the newfound freedom can take your business.