When is the right time to write a mission statement? My answer has always been at the beginning of a strategic planning process. At least initially. Don’t get married to that one. Strategic planning the mission. Strategic planning is about thinking strategically, at least that should be its goal. Strategic planning is about discovering the mission. It is a learning process. The organization should not see itself the same way at the end as it does at the beginning. The mission statement will be the pattern that doesn’t shift against all of the things that do. The mission statement will reflect the core value that pops up in the oddest place to moderate a far flung discussion and bring it back to a central theme. The mission will be a concept that must be navigated around like a large rock in a swift flowing stream. You will think you know your mission, and you may, but strategic thinking, strategic analysis, will force you to examine it from multiple perspectives, to seep between its layers and see if they are comfortable for the road ahead.
When do you write your mission statement? Throughout the process. Don’t spend one session early on picking and arguing over just the right words, rather let the words emerge from the strategic dialog one at a time, or in entire sentences. Don’t be afraid to prune. Don’t be afraid to reject outright those words, those ideas, when you can’t find a way to make them matter.
Mission statements are like sculpture. They exist in the fabric of the organization, but they must often be rescued from the accumulated trash of process so the pearl of meaning becomes clear again. The patina removed to reveal the deeply carved, durable concept that both creates and reflects meaning. When you read a mission that you can’t imagine your organization existing without, then you can stop and rest before you start the real work of seeing everything you do through that lens, and making the tough choices involved in reshaping things so they fit, or eliminating things that no longer make sense. A good mission statement will make it easy to discuss what not to do because it will create sharp contours of light and dark that bring decisions into focus.
On the other hand, if the mission statements doesn’t help you make better decisions, then keep working. You haven’t yet found your center yet.