Tag Archives: organizational life

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The Sinkhole of Mission Statements

Mission statements go to a different level to serve as “eulogistic coverings” that gloss over the human complexities underneath.

Anyone who has worked in an organization has met a boss or a consultant who urges the group to revisit their mission statement. It is a given that eyes will roll at the thought. No aspect of self-assessment is more susceptible to our cynicism. In our heart-of-hearts we know an organization is less an “it” than a multifaceted conglomeration.  Singularity of function is partly a fiction.

In the course of a long career, I’ve been a party to perhaps five or six different efforts to take time–usually more than a few hours–to codify the goals and aspirations of the group. Academics in particular have turned this challenge into a kind of sport. But organizations that offer a range of complex services especially need to identify what they see as in and out of their purview.  What are the essential goals and purposes of an organization? What is at the core of its service to others? Notwithstanding the problems, questions like hold out the chance of learning something useful.

But any talk of objectives and goals can be a long way from what is going on down on the ground. What can be proclaimed to the world without shame?  A formal mission statement is a sort of bath that is supposed to cleanse an organization of the petty interpersonal and political motivations that can tear it apart. A teacher’s daily goals may include real instrumentalities like getting to class on time, finding a computer and internet connection that will work, or dealing with a nonstop talker. These are essential day-to-day functions, but they are not going to appear in a statement to an external audience.

The rhetoric of a mission statement is almost always earnest and panoramic: taking the high road to fulfilling goals that are self-evidently good. One version of McDonald’s statement is “to be our customers’ favorite place and way to eat and drink.”  For Chick-fil-A it is “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.” That’s a high road indeed. But by the time of yet another go-around–especially for those of us who have been at a place since it was wired for electricity–it is easy to notice that the day-to-day work of the organization involves functions that are mostly disconnected from the lofty ideals frothed up in any statement.  For my part, in terms of anxiety about success or failure, making sure that the electronic equipment in my teaching space would actually work was always at the top of my list. Creating transformative insights might come in due course.

Other concerns that would not soar in a mission statement might include ending the infighting between units or individuals, defusing interpersonal hostility that is saps productivity and morale, or dealing with defections of individuals who have functionally left the organization. None of these problems are communicated to customers or stakeholders. Mission statements go to a different level to serve as “eulogistic coverings” that can be draped over the more frail human mechanisms underneath.

Aside from their distance from the day-to-day work of an organization, another problem with these declarations of noble intent is that there is always a considerable gap between goals that we can imagine, and the actual reasons we behave as we do. An organization is a tool to achieve something. But it also is a community of needs-driven people. And parsing intentionality informed by those needs is a tricky business. We can declare our reasons for engaging in a single action or some grand collective effort. But the expression of these is usually a long way from more authentic and sometimes unknowable motivations. Ask a person why they took that selfie, and you are apt to get a reason that deflects attention away from a more likely reason. It simply won’t do to say that we took the picture because we think we are pretty, or that we would like to stir up a little envy in those who receive it.*  We’ve seen great comedy made out of these rituals with subterranean origins.  My favorites include NBC’s The Office and the BBC’s WIA.*

To take a more complex case, a group can claim that they exist to serve their customers and the larger community. But the performance of tasks they take on may suggest more strategic motives: to reassure nervous shareholders, to increase profits by cutting staff pensions or benefits, or perhaps to streamline operations by outsourcing various functions. None of these immediate goals will appear in gold and bold type on the first page of an annual report. Indeed, some corporate strategies are so hostile to customers and employees that a perverse kind of institutional success occurs if their objectives never see the light of day.

A simple recommendation to a group gathered over stale coffee and rolls is cut down on the amount of time formulating these statements, recognizing that what is produced is an exercise in aspirational rhetoric. Since the purposes of a group of individuals are partly unknowable, spending time on them can consume the energy needed to face tough challenges.  It’s better to get on with the work of making the most of the financial and human resources that are realistically available. In addition, though a single document offers no easy way to acknowledge how individuals deploy their varied talents, it helps to at least signal their existence.


*Exploring how we mostly fail to discover and accurately name intentions is the subject of the author’s The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs (2013).

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The Tyranny of Rule-Making

Our ability to write rules far exceeds our ability to live by them.

Anyone employed by a business or institution soon discovers that they “work” in what are often two very different tracks.  The organization presumably provides services  or produces products.  Some of an employee’s efforts go into helping assure that these services are delivered more or less as promised.  But in a big organization this primary goal may require looking through a maze of flow charts and routing procedures that obscure more basic ‘line’ functions.  It’s clear enough what line people do:  purchasing, manufacturing, sales and keeping the books.  They are directly responsible for whether a  customer is satisfied.  But the commitment of staff resources to “supporting” these functions can be a runaway train.  It seems as if our abilities to write new procedures far exceeds our abilities to live by them.

Staff culture in a larger organization ostensibly augments essential line functions.  That’s the idea, at least.  In actual fact they may come to swamp the organization’s morale and efficiency, setting rules and standards that seem to exist for their own sake.  And because organizations have hierarchies, those in charge carry a formal authority that requires others to adapt and obey.  Read this mostly as the submission of “supporting data and materials,” which may take the form of various metrics, progress reports, mission statements, five-year goals, project proposals, staff evaluations, vendor reviews, self-assessments and the like.  And so while even a mid-level employee does things to shape the final product or service on offer, he or she will also need to spend a lot of time learning the organizational labyrinth.  In really big organizations there are even “compliance officers” who do nothing but police arcane procedures. One set of offices gains power by asking  another for paper evidence of their worth.

This kafkaesque thicket is why one of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics is still an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.  Professor Donna Strickland said she just didn’t want to bother with the mountains of paper should would have had to produce in order to win a promotion.  Never mind that the University might recognize her talents on its own.

In an ideal organization perhaps no more than two hours a week would be devoted to “process” issues: reports, memoranda, applications,  meetings and the like that the hierarchy needs to keep itself well fed.  Alas, we seem to have developed institutions where final results are hardly noticed by those stuck in middle management distractions and useless cul-de-sacs.


Strictly ancillary administrative functions seem to metastasize into ever larger “support” bureaucracies.

Workplace comedies usually include a healthy level of skepticism about procedures and rules that have become important for their own sake.  Cut off from meaningful improvements in the organization’s work, more employees spend their days finding new ways to be busy and seemingly vital.  The best recent example is the British series W1A (currently available on Netflix), a multi-part mockumentary ostensibly about work life at the B.B.C. Give the great broadcasting organization credit; it opened up its new offices to a group of actors mercilessly engaged in ransacking the company’s organizational life.  The series is filled with meaningless meetings that include staffers with meaningless titles.  There’s the well-paid Director of Better, a Head of Values, a Director of Strategic Governance, an “Ideation Architect”, and many “brand consultants.”   Throughout the series those folks do their best to avoid a uttering a clear opinion or committing to a course of action.  Above all, committee meetings show participants deeply wary of doing anything that could be an excuse to let them go.  Here’s the  genial but clueless Head of Values (Hugh Bonneville)  holding his first meeting of “The Way Ahead” task force group.

What does this all mean? Complexity is not a reliable sign of organizational success.  Once as Chair of an academic department I tried to answer every request for a report or proposal in one page or less.  Other chairs in the school often submitted documents too thick to staple.  Mine arrived as a weightless single sheet.  Who said Professors of Rhetoric are wordy?  I’m sure the Dean thought this was some sort of passive-aggressive gesture, though we were always on good terms.  My larger goal was serious: to remove useless verbiage to focus on what our program could deliver to our students.