I've written before in this blog about the value of written vision/mission statements. Here's one of the most inspiring I've ever seen:
"To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers...as only NASA can."
Wow! That's vision. Beyond the obvious and vaguely kitschy allusion to Star Trek, it's a sentence that's poetic, easy to understand, and captures one's imagination with its boldness and humanity.
A recent news item in the New York Times reports that NASA's inspiring mission statement was "quietly altered" earlier this year to this:
"to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research."
The key piece that was deleted (other than the poetry of the thing) is "to understand and protect our home planet." According to the Times, the change
"comes as an unwelcome surprise to many NASA scientists, who say the "understand and protect" phrase was not merely window dressing but actively influenced the shaping and execution of research priorities. Without it, these scientists say, there will be far less incentive to pursue projects to improve understanding of terrestrial problems like climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions."
The "understand and protect" phrase was used last year by NASA climate scientis James Hansen to defend his work. Hansen generated a lot of press by accusing political operatives of threatening him for speaking publicly about the danger of global climate change. So the mission statement change looks like the kind of draconian, paternalistic, politically motivated decision that has become a hallmark of the Bush administration.
Politics aside, it's a great example of how to destroy employee loyalty and engagement. The inspiring NASA mission statement was adopted in 2002 under Bush-appointed NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe after "an open process with scientists and employees across the agency." Which is how a good mission statement should be created, if you want it to resonate with the people who are responsible for delivering it.
Imagine if you're someone who was involved in the development of the 2002 statement. At a company I used to work for that was famous for its draconian CEO and its Kafkaesque bureacracy, we called these kinds of situations "BOHICA moments." BOHICA stands for "bend over, here it comes again."
Some, I'm sure, will be dusting off their resumes, but where else would anyone at NASA go to find similar work? The Chinese or Russian space agencies? Instead, like most demoralized employees, they will lose their motivation and start thinking of their jobs as paychecks rather than sources of fulfilment and pride. Productivity and quality will go down, costs will go up.
I feel sorry for the 19,000 employees who have to deal with this B.S. And I'm reminded of how important it is for communicators to do what they can to bring inspiring vision statements to life.
If someone changed the wording, and meaning, of your mission statement tomorrow, would anyone care?