How many people does it take to write a mission statement? Answer: 38; one to write it and 37 to argue about how it could be improved.
I was in the middle of our second faculty meeting where our proposed mission statement was being debated. A discussion had been underway for about 20 minutes regarding the sentence, "Prepare students to assume positions of responsibility in an increasingly complex technological, global, and multicultural world." Some faculty wanted the word "responsibility" to be replaced with "leadership." Others argued for "responsibility and leadership." Someone else wanted "leadership and responsibility. Then the argument moved to the term "...multicultural world." A number of arguments pro and con were made. In the final version of this sentence, no changes were made, but it took two meetings to arrive at that decision.
Other mission statement sentences were debated. When all was said and done, it took about an hour in this second meeting on the matter to debate six sentences which, once formalized and displayed on the walls, will attract as much interest as the paint.
This process got me to thinking about mission statements in general and wordsmiths in particular. Mission statements, not to be confused with vision statements (don't ask) are intended to be public statements about why an organization exists and what it is attempting to do. Vision statements also do this, but are more vague about it.
Think about the last time you read a mission statement. Quite possibly you have never read one. But if you are among the small percentage of those who have read one or more mission statements, did it change your opinion about the organization? Did the experience influence your decision making? Have you ever read a mission statement in order to make an informed choice about anything? I suspect the answer to most of these questions is "no." Considering the lack of interest in mission statements by people not involved with the writing of them, it's amazing that the writing process gets so much attention. Why?
First, they are photographs through words of what the organization wants to look like in the eyes of the public and the organization's stakeholders. In that respect it is the equivalent of an individual trying to create a portrait of what he or she hopes to look like and wishes to achieve. The other reason mission statement development gets so much attention is due to wordsmiths.
Group wordsmithing comes about because of gang mentality. When a group of educated people is challenged to 'improve' a piece of writing, group member feel compelled to do so whether improvement is really needed or not. And they do so with a ferocity that, in a less cultured environment, would lead to rape and pillage. Having a large group of educated people agree on a mission statement is as problematic as having group of wolves agree on who gets the rabbit.
There is much research on group decision making that substantiates the ideal group size as five or seven people. Unfortunately this is the most ignored research that I am aware of. I have done some other, less academic, research into this matter.
1. When renting a movie, never take more than one other person into a video store. And then plan on renting at least two movies.
2. If you are planning on fixing dinner, never ask more than one person what they want to eat.
3. If you want a forecast, don't ask more than one economist.
4. If something you wrote needs editing, don't let a group of people anywhere near it.