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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

“Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements.”

I've been arguing with some people over whether it's worth spending effort on revising a mission statement.  I maintain that most or all mission statements in higher ed are worthless because they come before the meaningful decisions, not after.  A mission statement has high-minded phrases and pleasant words.  There's nothing wrong with that, except that it can't guide decision-making.  "Academic excellence" is great, but what does it mean?  "Research" is obviously important, but every time a resource decision comes up you have to decide if one person's research program is more worthy of resources than another's, or if in this particular instance research should not get resources at the expense of classroom instruction, or if growth in an area of existing strength is a better use of resources than development of a new area.  And so forth.

Each of the examples that I posed in the previous paragraph involves a trade-off where reasonable people might differ.  The basic problem is that a mission statement doesn't help you resolve the dilemma.

Now, this is not to say that I'm not a fan of having people decide what their priorities are.  I am very much a fan of that.  I am coordinating my department's efforts to convert our curriculum from quarters to semesters.  A year ago I started this process by asking faculty in my department and client departments (i.e. departments whose students take our physics classes) what they wanted most, and pointing out trade-offs that would be encountered. After these conversations, we didn't draft a high-minded statement.  Instead, we looked for areas of agreement and put different values and considerations on the table, and worked through different scenarios for possible requirements.  Over time, a curriculum emerged, and I can point to consistent themes that run through the curriculum that we agreed on. We started with a large series of goals and negotiated something that is not a bunch of clunky and mismatched oddities, nor is it a bland collection of inoffensive second choices, but rather a reflection of common concerns that many people have consistently expressed over the years.

The problem is that this took work.  It took a lot of discussion of real, tangible trade-offs. And the only reason that we were able to focus our minds is that there were real stakes. The curriculum may just be a piece of paper right now, but we know that it will have real consequences because in a few years we will be teaching the classes on that list.  Students will be taking those classes.  Students will be preparing via the prerequisite classes that we agreed on.  There will be concrete action by real people.  At every step of the conversation, it was clear what sorts  of concrete actions we would take if we agreed to an idea that was on the table.

A mission statement is different.  A mission statement starts from the disparate goals and a group of people, and condenses them to a few high-minded sentences.  There's no hard work, and no concrete trade-off.  All of the hard stuff is kicked down the road.  It means nothing.  The idea that you can sort out your priorities via high-minded verbiage rather than decisions with consequences is a false promise sold by consultants and managers whose only interest is padding the resume for the next step, and it's bought by people who are desperate to be better and want to believe that it can be accomplished via secret tricks and correct politics.  It's liars selling to lunatics.  It's the fantasy of an easy path to what can only be won by sweat and blood.

If you absolutely insist on drafting a mission statement, here's my advice:  First work through some hard decisions involving real trade-offs and tangible resources.  After you've done that work, see what sorts of themes ran throughout your decisions.  Only now do you know what your actual priorities are, and if you are absolutely insistent on it you can distill those priorities into some high-minded statements that you paste into documents and display on plaques...at least until facts on the ground change.  Then you might have to make some more hard decisions rather than just appeal to nice words on plaques.

2 comments:

Phil Ebersole said...

I like mission statements.

Whenever I was given an assignment I didn't want to carry out, I argued that it didn't fall within the mission statement

Alex Small said...

Hah! Good point. The problem is that somebody else, with a bit of sophistry, can argue that it does. All you have is a diversionary tactic to use against the weak-minded.

Then again, I usually disagree with the sorts who think mission statements are meaningful, so maybe I should embrace them as a weapon handed to me by dumb enemies.