The Long and Short of Project Mission Statements

By Doug DeCarlo

I'm a big fan of the short and sweet 3 Sentence Project Mission Statement. I've used it successfully with well over 100 project teams and am yet to find a project of any type or size that cannot be summarized in this way.

A well-fashioned Project Mission Statement allows the project team to move ahead with clarity, speed and buy-in (for a change) and, if you're lucky, enthusiasm as well. It also provides customers and other stakeholders with a clear and succinct picture of the project's essence. In the heat of battle it serves as the lighthouse in the storm.

Unfortunately, many of the great unwashed out there in project blunderland prefer longer mission statements. That's because it's easier to write a half page or more than it is to take the time to hash it out with the team and Sponsor and boil the thing down to its essence.

There are a number of problems with longer project mission statements:
  • Many will not take time to read them
  • If they do, there's too much to remember
  • There's confusion even before the project starts: those who do read it will invariably differ in their interpretation of what the real project is all about
The 3 Sentence Project Mission Statement is a distillation of the most basic questions about the venture:

1st Sentence: The lead sentence contains three components. It states:
  • Who is doing the project. This is typically the core team's chosen name.
  • What is to be produced. That is, the output of the project; the thing, service or capability that will be delivered.
  • For whom the project is being undertaken. This refers to the customer for the project's output. The customer can be an intermediate user (as in the case of another project team) or it can be the end user (as in the case of say, a web site, or the consumers of a new health food snack).
2nd Sentence:
The purpose of the second sentence is to establish a stop sign, to indicate how everybody will know that the project is over and done. It answers the question, "What will tell us that the project deliverable (in the first sentence) has been completed?" Failure to do this at the start is a major reason why a project turns into a life sentence.

3rd Sentence:
Here the focus shifts from the project deliverable to the business justification (expected benefit). By shining the spotlight on "why we are doing the project," the second sentence provides a link to the Sponsor's hopefully compelling business case, including the expected ROI. Typically, this sentence begins with the phrase: "This project supports the Blank Organization's objective(s) to:"

I have found that the exercise of developing the third sentence often exposes an important early warning sign: a weak or unclear business rationale underpinning the project. This then becomes an opportunity to commit projectcide: killing an unworthy project before it takes on a life of its own.

Let's Take An Example
I consider Noah to be one of the earliest and most successful project managers on record. I'm not alone in this. Since he did so well on the Ark project, let's imagine that the Sponsor decided to reward him by giving Noah yet another one. Had Noah known about the 3 Sentence Project Mission Statement and if he worked together with the team, the Sponsor and other key stakeholders, they might have framed the second project as follows:
The Noah Family will develop and deploy a New World Orientation Website for survivors of the flood.

This project mission will be considered compete when the flood survivors have full access to the website.

This project supports Heaven's objective to cleanse Planet Earth and start over with a whole new team.
The time to draft the 3 Sentence Mission Statement is during the project kickoff session. A good technique is for the Project Manager or Sponsor to walk into the room with a "strawman" draft of the three statements. That way, everyone has a common point of departure and a running start for generating discussion with the goal of coming to the unified understanding of the project. In my experience, the final draft turns out to be quite different from the opening version.

The Project Mission Statement is not official until the Project Sponsor approves it. After all, it's his project. No approval. No project.

Once the project is launched, it's very likely that elements of the Mission Statement will change. It's critical that the Sponsor and other key stakeholders- and not the project manager -- approve any change.

If you're ready to scare yourself, try this. Pick an important project that's now underway. Round up the project team along with a few key stakeholders. Do this in person or via e-mail. Ask them to take 3-5 minutes to jot down their interpretation of the 3 Sentence Project Mission Statement. Take a deep breath. Compare notes. Are you all on the same page? Or should I say, sentence? I doubt it.

This is normal. Things change. Unfortunately, it's also normal that people don't take the time to re-synchronize and come to a new common agreement as to what they are now doing, for whom and why, and when it will be over.

eXtremely yours,


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Need some ideas or examples for constructing your own best project mission statement? We have several different variations available.

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