Keeping the mission on task

Creating a mission statement easier said than done

 

Upfront players (clockwise from bottom) Ben Eisner, D.K. Reinemer, Amy Kepferle, Stephen Edwards and Morgan Grobe discuss creating the Upfront Theatre’s mission statement at a meeting in April.

 

In a crowded green room behind The Upfront Theatre’s main stage, a core group of committed main stage improv players contemplate the past, present and especially the future of their theater.

The theater has become a second home to many of the players, and its history is scrawled up and down the walls of the room. Caricatures, comedic mantras and autographs of touring performers show where the theater has been, while the Upfront family raps about where the business is going.

For the first time, The Upfront Theatre is drafting its mission statement — a solid declaratory paragraph that conveys what the theater is, what the players do and how they do it.

The theater’s artistic producer, Laura Heenan, runs these meetings, in which for the past six weeks the players have discussed and debated the semantics and long-range implications of a permanent mission statement for the theater.

Heenan said the theater’s administration had always desired a mission statement, but the day-to-day work of getting the theater up and running placed the idea on the back burner. When Heenan was hired in February, however, she said it was to be one of her main focuses.

“I think in order for us to progress as a business we need to agree on who we are,” Heenan said. “A mission statement would say who we are and be a guiding force for what we do.”

Tom Dorr, director of Western Washington University’s Small Business Development Center, said his center is a resource for local businesses to find that guiding force. Dorr said a mission statement should be a concise, specific statement that clearly outlines the business’ identity, purpose, target audience, stakeholders and mission.

“For most businesses, these are not easy questions to answer,” Dorr said.

 

A small boat sailing toward a destination

An effective way for businesses to think about mission statements, Dorr said, is to think of a small boat sailing on a vast ocean moving toward a far-off destination.

“Let’s say you want to sail to Hawaii and you want to have a safe and enjoyable time in under two months,” Dorr said. “A mission statement becomes a focus which you can evaluate against your goals.”

Similarly, Heenan described the mission statement like a compass that can help guide that boat into the future.

“If we ever want to enter a new market or take the theater in a new direction, the mission statement will tell us if that direction is still in keeping with our original mission or if it’s horribly wrong for us,” Heenan said.

Rhonda Abrams, California-based author of “The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies” and president of The Planning Shop, a book publisher for entrepreneurs and small businesses, said she has seen first hand how a good mission statement can help businesses thrive and keep their focus, especially in the face of adversity. She remembers talking with the former president of Odwalla, who had to oversee a massive product recall after some of its juices were found to be the source of a 1996 E. coli outbreak.

Immediately after the juice recall, Abrams said, the company began helping the families of those affected without consulting a lawyer or a public relations agency. Abrams said she asked the former president why their response was so immediate.

The president replied that it was written into their mission statement to provide healthy drinks, so there was never a question about what to do.

“A mission statement should be a guide in good times and bad times,” Abrams said.

 

Etched in stone?

Coming up with a succinct statement to define a business’ goals is easier said than done, however. Several of the Upfront players seemed a bit hesitant to put a concrete label on something as fluid and creative as improvisational theater because it may inhibit them in the future.

D.K. Reinemer, who has been with The Upfront Theatre’s main stage since it opened nearly four years ago, said the players have always had an unspoken mission statement that guided them.

“I don’t need to have a mission statement hanging above the door — I’ve got it in my heart.”

Reinemer said that while he understands a mission statement is a valuable tool for the theater, especially to use to book private shows and promote their education program, drafting the statement has been challenging.

“Everyone here has so much passion for this theater and we are seriously invested in this group,” Reinemer said. “So I sort of worry that maybe we won’t say the right things and then it’s set in stone.”

Reinemer said it’s a daunting task to create something quasi-permanent that still gives the players and the theater room to evolve and grow. At the theater’s April 14 meeting, the issue of writing goals into the mission statement showed the challenge in coming to consensus with a mission statement. Some felt it was absolutely necessary to include goals yet to be achieved in the statement, and others strongly disagreed.

Dorr from the Small Business Development Center said a business should not add goals to their statement but instead craft the language to be general enough to allow for multiple options in the future.

“It needs to be broad enough to handle those goals without including them directly,” Dorr said.

 

The devil in the details

But of what words will this carefully crafted language be composed?

Upfront players discussed the inclusion of the word “innovate” or “innovation.” The group sought a dictionary definition and continued their discussion. Then the group needed to decide — if they used the word, where in the statement would it fit best?

The discussion about this and other semantic issues continued for the entire hour-and-a-half meeting with several differing opinions. The meeting ended with a consensus on the structure of the statement’s second sentence. They would take on the rest at a later meeting.

Dorr said differing opinions on the statement’s composition are a good thing. Dorr said that different points of view lead the group to challenge the various opinions, which results in thoughtful discourse and ultimately a stronger business.

“Having a discussion around what words mean and don’t mean also allows for team building,” Dorr said.

In order to create the most considerate and comprehensive mission statement, Dorr said a business must involve as many key staffers as possible — especially if they disagree. Essentially, the more people are involved, the more people will ultimately buy into the mission statement.

“Disagreement is a positive aspect in a company,” Dorr said. “A company that is filled with a bunch of ‘yes-men’ will not come up with a considerate mission statement.”

Heenan said the development of The Upfront Theatre’s mission statement is something that absolutely required the participation of the main stage players.

“They are the face of the theater and a large chunk of them have been with the theater since it began — they grew with the theater,” Heenan said.

Abrams agreed that the more people a company can get involved in drafting a mission statement, the better.

“That way employees don’t see it as coming down from upon high,” Abrams said.

Reinemer said that he and the other players have really learned a lot about themselves and the theater in the midst of this extremely challenging process.

“It is good work to be doing,” Reinemer said.

 

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