Monday, January 16, 2012

Creating a mission and vision statement for our research group

My lab and I recently participated in an exercise that I think might be worthwhile for most science groups. We—grad students, undergrads, postdocs, and research staff—sat down at a recent retreat and brainstormed about who we were and what we were striving to achieve. We talked about specific things that we do, projects that we are working on, and ways that we collaborate with others to do our work. We talked about *why* we do what we do and why anyone—including us!—should care about that work. And then we tried to sum all of that up into some statements that we felt we could all get behind and be motivated to achieve.

In short, we wrote a mission and a vision statement for our lab. It might seem like a strange thing for a bunch of scientists to do, but we realized that our university has a mission statement—Where/how do we fit into that mission? We realized that all of the stakeholders that we work with have mission statements—Do they overlap with our goals and aspirations? How are we distinctive? We figured the only way to answer these questions was to see if we could come up with a mission and vision for ourselves.  After brainstorming collectively, we worked in small groups to come with some suggested text that I later edited, combined, and finessed.

Here’s what we did and how it went…

First, I collected from several webpages some guidelines and suggestions. Most of the guidance out there is for corporations or non-profit organizations, but it was not hard to adopt it for academic purposes.

From some online research, we learned that a MISSION STATEMENT is a description of the purpose for your organization, primarily as it now is and/or will be within the next few years. A good mission statement should accurately explain why your organization exists and what it hopes to achieve in the near future. It articulates the organization's essential nature, its values, and its work. The statement should resonate with the people working in and for the organization, as well as with the different constituencies that the organization hopes to affect. It must express the organization's purpose in a way that inspires commitment, innovation, and courage.

A Mission statement should:
Be a short paragraph;
Express organization's purpose in a way that inspires support and ongoing commitment;
Motivate those who are connected to the organization in some way;
Be articulated in a way that is convincing and easy to grasp;
Use proactive verbs;
Be free of jargon;
Be short enough so that it can be easily remembered or repeated;
Be understandable to anyone who is outside the organization or field.

The statement should answer three questions:
1. What are the opportunities or needs that we exist to address?
2. What are we doing to achieve these needs?
3. What principles or beliefs guide our work?

[Most of the above text is taken/adapted from Radtke 1998.]

Here’s what we came up with—it’s a work in progress and we will review and revise it every year or so. I’m not sure that it does all of the things that good statement should do (it’s a bit long to memorize), but I think it’s a pretty good start…

The Hellmann Lab MISSION:
Climate and other environmental changes demand society’s attention. The world needs leadership in understanding the biological impacts of global change and potential for solutions to those impacts. We believe that decisions about global change must be informed by scientific understanding and public values. Therefore, we: 1) develop and deploy cutting-edge science to understand the changing natural world, and 2) engage diverse stakeholders in conversation about solutions to environmental change.

A VISION STATEMENT, in contrast, looks at least five years into the future and defines a future state. It is an articulation of a world that the organization and people are working toward, not what is expected to happen now. It should be written in a manner by which people, at all levels, can be held accountable. (Or so says Simon Simek of Start With Why.) We decided to include some kind of statement about our beliefs or goals at the broadest, most successful level, and we tried to make that vision short and punchy. We also tried to make the vision statement distinctive from our mission statement by making it about our aspirations and desired outcomes rather than what we do on a day-to-day basis. For example, Simek says that that Southwest Airline’s vision statement says nothing about flying—so our statement below doesn’t say anything about doing ecology.

The Hellmann Lab VISION:
We envision a world abundant with biodiversity that sustains humanity. To help achieve this, we strive to:
1) Understand ecological responses to climate and other environmental changes;
2) Develop strategies to help people and ecosystems reverse or adapt to these changes;
3) Engage in regular dialog with the public to implement such strategies.

Even more broadly, this also is our vision:
We desire and enable sustainable management of Earth’s ecosystems, for the benefit of all.

Has your group of scientists tried to create a mission and vision statement? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences! And what do you think of what we created? For that matter, does our vision sound good to you? Come join us!


  1. An update--
    Virginia Gerwin wrote an article about mission and vision statements for scientists and their research labs in "Turning Point" for Nature Magazine (March 22, 2012). Check it out here: Climate scientist guides lab in devising mission statement and 'branding' its research

  2. Hi Jessica

    Our lab group is off to the mountains this afternoon for our retreat. One of our goals is to create our Mission Statement (and to enjoy the cool air and cool beverages). We'll let you know how it comes out.

    Jim E

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