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Team-Sourcing a Project Mission Statement Can Help to Build Your Team!

No one can argue that having a cohesive, focused team is critical to the success of a complex project.

The challenge for many project managers is figuring out how to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. This difficulty compounds when team members are not solely working on your project – maintaining a sense of shared purpose is almost impossible when team members are frequently context switching between activities.

Creating alignment and developing a high performing team starts as early as the project kickoff meeting, but how do you reduce the likelihood of enthusiasm flagging as time goes on?

Assuming you have worked with your project sponsor to come up with an inspiring name for the project, that’s a good start. With the exception of confidential projects, there are few good reasons for baptising projects with code names, techno-babble or convoluted acronyms. A well-crafted name can help to align stakeholder perceptions and can reduce misconceptions about the purpose of the project.

Unfortunately as project names are usually defined before most team members have been assigned to the project, there might be little team building benefit to be gained from having an inspiring name.

While there are multiple exercises and games available to help build teams, a good project-focused exercise for all team members might be to develop the mission statement for your project. A good mission statement creates a sense of shared purpose and is a valuable tool to help answer the “What’s in it for me?” question which those affected by the changes implemented by a project might ask.

Mission statements have received plenty of well-deserved criticism in recent years, but most of these concerns relate to company mission statements. Organizations are expected to be permanent entities and depending on how the mission statement is used, and how specific it is, it could either constrain future direction or come across as trite or too generic to provide much benefit. Beyond this, there have been too many instances of companies that never lived up to the intent of their mission statements through a lack or violation of their core values.

In the project context, such risks are less likely to be realized – by definition, a project is intended to be a temporary endeavor focused on achieving a specific set of objectives, hence a project mission statement can help to reinforce the sense of shared vision which begins with a good project name. If the project morphs significantly over its lifetime, that can actually be a very good reason to discard the current mission statement and write a new one to help team members and stakeholders absorb the change.

What’s a good approach for your team to take when developing a project mission statement?

While you may be inclined to try to develop it within one session for efficiency reasons, there may be greater benefit in developing it incrementally over the course of a few meetings. This avoid the need for team members to try to force creativity and enables mental “refactoring” between sessions which should result in a better quality outcome.

It may also be challenging to convince the team to invest significant effort in a single meeting to work on something which they may not fully appreciate, but if you stretch that same effort out over multiple meetings it might be an easier sell. One way to do this might be to have the development of the mission statement as a regular ten or fifteen minute weekly team meeting agenda item.

Here’s one way to go about developing a project mission statement over multiple sessions:

  1. Provide the team with a basic understanding of why a mission statement is valuable and what are the attributes of a well written mission statement. This information can easily be found by a simple Internet search, but some of the links I’ve found helpful include:
  2. Facilitate a brainstorming session focused on identifying themes or dynamic, action words related to the project and its outcomes.
  3. Using this list of themes or action words, have each team member come up with at least one (but no more than three) prototype mission statements.
  4. Have each team member vote for the prototype statements they like and then have them identify the phrases within the top ranked sentences which resonate with them. Finally, have a few team members try to construct a new statement which tries to incorporate as many of these phrases as possible.

How will you know if you have developed a good project mission statement?

Have a few team members say it aloud, and watch their expressions as they do so. If they are animated, smiling and enthusiastic, you’ll know it’s right!

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