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Mission Impossible—Made Possible
Setting your project up for success—and keeping it on that path—with a well-constructed Mission Statement
“People lose their way when they lose their why.” —Gail Hyatt
In the world of project management, mission statements are often overlooked or disregarded, seen as just another bureaucratic formality that doesn't have much practical value. However, a well-crafted mission statement can be a critical tool that drives the success of a project. The importance of this cannot be overstated; the mission statement is the primary source for all project planning. It serves as a guiding light for change management, decision-making, and problem-solving during execution. It also can provide helpful motivation and inspiration for you and the team. In this post, we will discuss the detailed what’s, why’s, and how’s of creating a project mission statement.
The TL;DR Key Takeaways:
What: A mission statement is typically the first—and arguably most important—document created within a project. It should clearly and concisely describe exactly what is the primary need for the project, along with a description of how it will address that need.
Why: A well-constructed mission statement is the primary source for all project planning. It also guides change management and problem-solving during execution. And it provides motivation for the team.
How: A mission statement is typically 1–3 paragraphs long, and is created from information gathered from key stakeholders. Some of the best mission statements are simply short and accurate lists that unambiguously state a) who the project is for; b) why the project is needed by them; and c) what the project will produce to solve the need.
What is a Mission Statement?
A mission statement is a brief, concise, and straightforward document that describes the purpose of the project, what it intends to achieve, and who it is intended to serve. It acts as a beacon or compass for the project team, providing a clear sense of direction and purpose for the project. In a sense, a mission statement describes the highest-level “business” case for the project.
A mission statement should not be confused with a vision statement. A vision statement describes the long-term goal of the organization or project, while a mission statement is a more specific explanation of the purpose and objectives of the project.
The mission statement should clearly and concisely explain what problem the project is addressing, and how it will solve that problem. It should also provide a sense of urgency and importance, conveying why the project is necessary and what will be achieved by the completion of the project. The statement should be clear, specific, and actionable, and should be easily understood by everyone involved in the project.
Former PMI President Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez says, “…the two main reasons for launching a project are either to solve a problem, or capture an opportunity. What is the problem we're going to solve with this project? What is the opportunity we're going to capture with this project? If you cannot answer these questions easily and plainly, you should wait to launch your project and research it further until you find the real rationale behind it.” A well-crafted Mission Statement is the documented proof that you’ve answered Antonio’s question.
Why is a Mission Statement Needed?
A well-constructed mission statement is critical for the success of a project. It serves as the foundation for all project planning, guiding the development of everything from the WBS, to the schedule, to the budget, to the risk register. A mission statement ensures that all planning aspects of the project are aligned with its goals and objectives. It encapsulates the very raison d’être of why the project exists at all. You literally cannot be certain what the project should actually create unless and until you take the time to understand the “why” behind the project. A mission statement serves that function.
In addition to guiding project planning, a mission statement also helps with change management and problem-solving during project execution. When unexpected problems arise, the mission statement serves as a touchstone for the project team, helping them to stay focused on the primary objectives of the project and guiding their decision-making as they work to resolve the issue. Should you choose Option A or B? Answer: whichever one best meets the needs spelled out in the mission statement.
Finally, a mission statement also provides motivation for you and the project team. It creates a sense of purpose and direction, helping team members to feel connected to the project and invested in its success. When team members understand the importance of the project and how it will benefit the organization and its stakeholders, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to achieving its objectives.
How to Create a Useful Mission Statement:
So, how do we write a useful Mission Statement? The good news is that creating one isn’t hard, but it takes a certain mindset shift to do correctly. It’s common for technically minded people (like yours truly) to immediately focus on solutions and deliverables, or even a surface-level understanding of the Why, rather than digging deeper into the real purpose for the project. But you must take the time to go further and more completely unearth the project’s purpose.
There are a few key steps required to developing a solid mission statement:
Do Your Homework. First, if you haven’t already done so (and you should!) read all the background information, research, business case studies, technical work & trade studies, and so on that you can about the history of the project up until now. The real, fundamental purpose for a project is often hiding in plain view—you just have to look for it.
Interview Stakeholders. Creating a mission statement is a collaborative process that involves key stakeholders in the project. The mission statement should be developed based on information gathered from these stakeholders, including project sponsors, customers, and end-users. A fundamental step during a project’s Initiation Phase is to sit down with and interview these people. Never skip this step. You must fully understand the key stakeholders' wants, desires, constraints, and worries during these interviews—and, most important of all, you must learn their “Why’s.” Keep asking and probing until you can fully articulate their individual reasons for wanting the project. What are the primary objectives for the project?
Capture & Brainstorm. Write all the various “Why’s” that crop up as you do your research and as you perform the stakeholder interviews. Then brainstorm and “brain-dump-write” to augment this list. Bring others in to help. I’m a fan of mind mapping, but you can use any method you like; the key is to capture the possible “Why’s” in raw form and then dissect them in the next step.
Sort & Distill. Begin sorting and categorizing these down into logical groupings and categories. Keep asking “Why?” Every so often you can quickly converge on the pure “Why” of a project, but more often it takes 3–5 times to ask deeper and deeper “Why” questions. Channel your inner child who keeps asking a parent “why is the sky blue”-type questions. The first answer to a “Why are we building a bicycle prototype project?” might be “To gain company experience with carbon fiber materials.” But if we ask “Why is that important?” we might discover “The industry statistics indicate that more consumers want carbon fiber than steel frames.” Okay, but “Why is that important?” Answer: “Because we risk losing market share to competitors who are already mastering carbon fiber.” And so on. The goal is to distill down the “Why’s” and converge on a few key statements.
Draft the Mission Statement. Next, it is time to create the first draft of the actual Mission Statement. The best statements are short and concise. They are typically 1–3 paragraphs in length, accurately and unambiguously stating who the project is for, why the project is needed, and what the project will produce to solve the need. Remember that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect; strive to capture the key points first, and worry about style, flow, grammar, and spelling later. There are many ways to write a mission statement, but I like simple bullet points. We’re not writing poetry; instead, we’re writing an informational document. A good format to consider is: “The Project will [insert: create/build/deliver TBD] because [insert key stakeholders] require [insert fundamental need/purpose].” And remember: less is more. Think of what you’re creating as an elevator pitch, where you don’t have time to keep the attention of a potential benefactor. Instead, you have a very limited time window (and attention span of the reader) to communicate the key “selling points” of the project.
Circulate, Iterate, & Finalize. Once you’re okay with a first, succinct draft, place it under revision control and circulate that version with “track changes on” to the key project stakeholders. Give them a realistic-but-firm deadline to provide feedback to you. Take as many passes and iterations as required with these stakeholders on revisions of the document until everyone appears satisfied with it. Then put the document through a formal sign-off process and place it under configuration control. And note that this last step of gathering signatures is when you will often get the most significant review and comments and feedback. Stakeholders who are required to sign their names will usually focus fully at this point.
Publicize. Once the mission statement is created, it is essential to communicate it clearly and effectively to all stakeholders involved in the project. This will help to ensure that everyone is aligned around the project's goals and objectives, and that everyone understands the importance and urgency of the project. The mission statement should be prominently displayed for both the team and key stakeholders to see. Don’t bury the document in a file somewhere to be forgotten; remember, a mission statement should be the guiding light of the project. Post it front and center on your project’s web page. Remind people regularly of the mission of the project.
The best mission statements are short and to the point, clearly stating what the project will produce, who it's for, and why it's needed.
Cautions and Caveats:
There are a few things to keep in mind when crafting a mission statement:
Needs not Wants. Firstly, a well-constructed mission statement should focus on the “needs” or “solution” to an over-arching problem. It’s common to sneak goals and “wants” into a mission statement; resist this urge. Stay targeted on the most-important and needed elements.
Less is More. A mission statement should be brief and to the point. Aim for a maximum just a few paragraphs to keep it focused and easy to understand. If you can’t explain your mission in 300–500 words, you haven’t tried hard enough.
Avoid Jargon. Use simple and clear language to avoid any confusion. Don't use jargon, technical terms or buzzwords that might confuse readers who are not familiar with the industry or field. And keep it specific; your mission statement should be focused enough to articulate what the project aims to accomplish. Avoid vague language at all costs.
Don’t Do It All Yourself. Get input from stakeholders: It's important to get input from stakeholders, including team members, customers, and partners, to ensure that the mission statement resonates with them and accurately reflects their needs and expectations.
The Bottom Line:
A mission statement is a critical tool for the success of a project. It serves as the foundation for all project planning, guiding the development of the project baseline and execution plans, and ensuring that all aspects of the project are aligned with its goals and objectives. And during execution, it helps with everything from change management, to difficult decision-making and problem-solving situations, to basic team motivation.
It’s difficult to understate the importance of a mission statement as a tool for project success. It is a critical document that provides focus and direction for the project, and is essential to ensuring that all project activities are aligned with the project's goals and objectives. By taking the time to create an effective mission statement and communicating it clearly to all stakeholders, project managers can set their projects up for success and create a sense of purpose and direction that motivates their teams to achieve their goals.
As Gail Hyatt said in the opening quote, above: you often lose your way when you’ve forgotten your why. Every project needs a guiding light, a bright beacon that shines through the fog of a project. A project Mission Statement is that light.