One discussion that's a complete waste of time is whether a statement is a mission statement, vision statement, a strategy or a tactic. While academics argue the point endlessly, executives have more important things to do (whereas academics have nothing else to do). Well known consulting firms will spend a lot of your money sorting all the statements about your business into nice categories for you to discuss at a later date. But the issue shouldn't be, "How do we name or classify something we say about our company?" It's "How does what we say about our company direct our daily actions?"
I'd like to offer the "and how would we do that?" approach. After making a statement, answer the question, "How would we do that?" If you say you want to be the No. 1 preferred product in the world, ask "How would we do this?" You might answer, "By being the No. 1 product in the U.S. and abroad." Well, how would we do that? In the U.S., you would have to be a nationally recognized brand to be the No. 1 product. (Is this an objective, a strategy or a vision?)
To be a nationally recognized brand, you need national distribution and both retailer and consumer awareness. Is this a strategy? How do you accomplish this? To create a national distribution system, let's say you need a network of distribution centers in at least four locations. So, are the four centers an objective? Do they denote a strategy or a tactic for the logistics group? And regardless, the question still remains "How would we set up the four distribution centers?"
Now consider the issue of consumer awareness. To be a nationally recognized brand, consumers have to know you exist. Is creating brand awareness an objective, strategy or tactic? Who cares? The question is, How will you accomplish this? You might have an advertising campaign to tell consumers about the advantages of your product over the competition's. This, of course, is a strategy. Or is it? But again, who cares?
I don't mean to torture you with rhetoric, but the issue in business is to have a guiding light to make sense of the decisions you make. I think of it as a genealogy chart of business decisions. If you look at who was chosen as an advertising spokesperson, you can trace the choice and reason for that decision all the way back to our first statement about what the company wants to be. "Why did you pick this spokesperson for the commercial?" You could answer, "Because we want to create the image of blah blah." Why? "Because it's the best way to get consumers to believe in our product."
The "how would we do that?" method does not make decision-making any easier. It just changes the way decisions are made. The focus becomes, what is the best way to accomplish a specific task?
Those who read my column regularly know I am obsessed with accountability in decision-making. People making decisions independent of previous decisions or any consideration of the direction the company wants to move can't run profitable businesses. While executives must make individual decisions, the decisions must be made in the context of where the company wants to go. Some have chosen to give names to these directions, such as mission, objectives, strategy and tactics. These may be helpful -- even necessary -- to get everyone on the same page, but writing mission statements is not the end-all, nor is arguing about what an objective or strategy is. The end-all is having a corporate "boat" with all engines going and the course and direction set. Regardless of how you get everyone on the same page, make sure the energy you spend is on the real purpose, which is to answer, "How would I do that?"
John L. Stanton is a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He can be contacted at (610) 660-1607; fax (610) 660-1604; e-mail at email@example.com; or www.johnLstanton.com.