Impressive firms without vision, mission or value statements: Bleg

I just came across an impressive philanthropic venture that nevertheless felt the need to articulate its ‘values’. I won’t go into it at any length here, but the more I think of formal articulations of values the less impressed I am.

So many organisations do it that perhaps it’s worth doing, but the thing that concerns me is that values tend to be articulated in tension with each other. If one of my values is ‘honesty’ and another is ‘consideration for others’, the illuminating thing is not the fact that I rehearse them as values – most people would claim to support the values – but how they are traded off against each other. When does honesty give way to consideration, or vice versa. Statements of corporate values – to the best of my knowledge never tackle this at all.

Anyway there are firms that think all this stuff is so much hot air. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is one. And it’s a clear thinking, generally right doing outfit. No shortage of values, and no lack of clarity of values there.

Then I wondered about another impressive outfit. Platinum Capital about whom I’ve written before. I searched its website for its ‘mission’ and the word appears once in its entire website and all its newsletters. It’s on the first newsletter and appears as a simple statement – rather than up in lights as a Capital M ‘Mission Statement.

As this is the first letter to investors, it is appropriate to remind readers of our mission. We aim to add to your wealth by scouring the world for listed companies which we believe are trading at valuations below their intrinsic worth.

That’s it. I can’t find any reference to the word “vision” or the expression “our values” on its website. And while it says it doesn’t ignore ethics in its investment approach (I presume if things get egregious enough), it has no formal ‘ethical investment framework’ because it’s aware of how difficult it is to actually come up with one that isn’t riddled with paradoxes.

Anyway, here’s my bleg, do you know any other successful companies that haven’t been swept up in the ouija board nonsense of visions, missions and values.

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Tel
Tel
9 years ago

I can’t find any formal mission statement at the Shapeways website, and they are kind of impressive if you are into that sort of stuff. Then again, “Mission: we’re into 3D printing” is so bleedingly obvious they probably typed it in, thought about it for a moment and deleted it out again.

The do (implicitly) have value statements, through their community stuff and blog, but they mostly are into having values by what they do rather than making a big statement about values (brass plaque style). Gets to a bit of a grey area the whole value statement thing. Dunno exactly where you draw the line.

Mel
Mel
9 years ago

I was initially cynical about the utility of missions, values etc in my former APS workplace but I actually found them useful on a number of occasions when dealing with difficult people up the chain of command as well work groups that I had to deal with but which had a dysfunctional internal culture. I think other folk had the same experience and that in an indirect way they may have improved productivity.

I think you may be dismissing these things because you have in mind an ideal workplace with perfect people and a healthy culture where every one is on the same page. In large organisations, that isn’t always the case. I have too little experience with small to medium outfits to comment on them.

fxh
fxh
9 years ago

I have often used the ENRON, statement of Values, Vision and Mission etc, sneakily,without telling people where it came from. Almost universally people will agree that it is a good example. Then – the Reveal – and useful discussion. Clearly that is one very good statement that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

On the other hand the process of coming to agreement on a Vision statement can be invaluable in reaching consensus and understanding. I remember one large corporation CFO telling me that the 6 of the executive group had been working on a short statement of vision, mission, values etc for 2 hours every week for 6 months and they weren’t finished. He did comment that the process had enabled them to understand each other better,understand the business and work together much better as a team and he considered it time well spent. Thrashing out what words and sentences meant to each other and in translation into practice had helped them in a way he didn’t think could be achieved by other methods.

David Walker
9 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

In its year 2000 annual report to shareholders, Enron listed its core values as follows:

Communication – We have an obligation to communicate.

Respect – We treat others as we would like to be treated.

Integrity – We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.

Excellence – We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do.

fxh
fxh
9 years ago

Nic,

I don’t remember – nothing remarkable. The point was its the process thats valuable.

I’ve been in organisations that undertook a fairly extensive process of engagement at all levels and some elapsed time to get and refine the Vision thing. The benefit is increasing understanding at all levels as to what the place is on about – if its a dinkum process then everyone is clear about what the mission is and where the business is heading.

The actual statement doesn’t look any different from what you might get if two people sat down for an hour and dreamed it it at a table over a meal. Or you could do a quick google through annual reports and snaffle a statement and just change a few words – really they all look the same – world class, quality, continuous improvement, customer focused, treat staff well, etc etc.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
5 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

“Why not just go abseiling as we used to do in the 1970s?” That’d be public liability old son.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
9 years ago

Nick,

you know my views on this: mission statements are essentially tokens of group affiliations binding them somewhat to the mores of those groups. Just as a Frenchman is supposed to say he believes his country is the greatest in the world but doesnt really have to believe this or act accordingly, so too must companies say they support the values of the groups they are part of. And mission statements are one way to do that. It locks a company into the need to appear to share the same values as these groups, which in turn does constrain them a bit. That they don’t completely put all their efforts into the stated mission is normal and not really expected of them, but the pretense itself is very much appreciated by staff, clients, and suppliers.

The mission statement of the British royal house is an honest one you might appreciate: dieux et moi droit. Loosely speaking this means ‘By divine right’. I think they really meant it too!

Mel
Mel
9 years ago

Another point- in my former APS Dept most promotions were made through an interview process and the interview would always contain questions that would prompt you to refer to the missions statement, core values etc in your answer and provide examples of have you’ve reacted when these have been breached by a mgr, peer, subordinate etc… , or how you’ve complied with them. I think this helped make folk mindful of these things rather than simply ignoring or forgetting about them.

David Walker
9 years ago

Another take on missions, ethics statements and the like: they’re useful when they are specifically directed at temptation.

My experience is that a statement about how people behave in the organisation can be particularly useful in a large and hierarchical organisation. It helps leaders throughout the organisation to spread the values and lock them in., so long as the leaders believe the organisation is really behind them.

In a flatter and smaller structure, everyone can see how the leadership actually behaves. Here a mission statement is often redundant and can create discord as people see gaps between words and deeds. Hence Berkshire Hathaway, whose administration has historically been a very small group completely dominated by Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger.

However, in whatever size organisation you have, it is important to have the conversations about the temptations to bad behaviour and how people should behave in the face of them. These conversations need not be formal, but if your organisation has any sort of power, these conversations need to happen. I’ve been part of at least three organisations (a big media business, a startup and a kids’ football club) where this has happened pretty well.

Avoiding the obvious temptations has been Google’s hallmark. (It probably helped that Microsoft, a company giving into some easy temptations, has been among its main rivals.)

Google is famous for an almost uniquely wonderful informal mission statement – “don’t be evil” is a masterstroke when your business is the shaping of people’s access to information. Google’s formal statements all begin with the idea that the company must serve its users’ needs, which is almost as important. Both statements came about because the company understood how easily its power in search could be used in ways that would soon destroy it. Google understood its power and promoted a conversation about how to limit that power – about how not to give into temptation.

Enron, on the other hand, completely avoided that conversation. Its values statement professed openness, honesty and sincerity but no-one on the inside behaved that way. And no-one had the explicit conversation about temptation. Enron had chances to rig markets, and chances to rig its books, and it gave into temptation every chance it got.

john r walker
9 years ago

“Google understood its power and promoted a conversation about how to limit that power – about how not to give into temptation.”
Google is a bit more ‘nuanced’ than that:
To quote James Grimmelmann:

Arrogance: Larry and Sergey are very smart computer scientists who became ludicrously wealthy by hiring other very smart computer scientists. That initial experience was imprinted on the company they founded: it has the confidence to believe that every problem “from book digitization to freedom of expression” can be solved by “talented computer scientists and engineers” bearing “scientific, heavily quantitative methods.” It has rooms full of smart people who are used to thinking of themselves as the smartest people in rooms full of smart people. The company’s two strategic quagmires—Android and Google+—both reflect the belief that its raw brainpower and allegedly unique corporate culture amount to a Green Lantern Corps power ring, capable of entering any field and dominating any market. But while an algorithm can be proven correct—companies cannot.

John Walker
5 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Predictions especially about the future are hard work.

john r walker
9 years ago

sorry the link dropped of
James Grimmelmann

john r walker
9 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

last dime of money back to copyright owners who long since lost interest in collecting the rent.
The Google books settlement was rejected because of the way it affected authors who have not yet written their books

… The Grimmelman article does not mention google books at all. Its more about a buisness model that places decision making in the hands of very clever algorithms

Kevin
Kevin
5 years ago

I’ve worked in many production facilities, and found mission statements to be a use ful tool, however in the best facilities they live and breate it, use it to make decisions for their company, they instill the values in the workers, so that their behaviours match up.

i hear people talk about being on the same page…. the mission is that page.

In older business it becomes natural, because everybody is on that page already.
done right, can change peoples lives, and the communities around it…..

Kevin
Kevin
5 years ago
Reply to  Kevin

worked in a few that ignore them too.