Mission Statement-- the Core of the Practice

by Dr. Greg Psaltis

We are a success center that encourages and supports everyone through
modeling positive behavior. Our Team is committed to education and
adaptability while envisioning a dream where innovations abound!

At moments when it may appear that the wheels are coming off a practice, the dentist may begin to wonder if the business has lost its way. Likewise, when Team members seem to be drifting away from the Vision and the path that has been laid out, one may question how to get back “on track.” Furthermore when a mature practice has accomplished so much that it seems to be on stagnant, it could be difficult to measure the degree of success or to even notice where the accomplishments have been. It is in each of these arenas that the Mission Statement can serve both as a succinct, clear map for the future as well as a tangible measuring stick to judge the performance of the past.

Steven Covey’s work has brought the concept of Mission Statement to the forefront of many businesses. This is a group process that may require hours to successfully and meaningfully create a statement that is reflective of the attitudes and values of a practice. The art form in it is the ability of such a document to accurately convey the most important elements that make a practice unique while providing a concise message to anyone who is not a part of the business itself. Finally, because it is a group process, there develops camaraderie around the statement itself. It becomes a roadmap for the practice to follow into the future. My experience has been that our Mission Statement has served in subtle, subconscious ways which, upon reflection, prove retrospectively to have provided a framework for the establishment of the practice as the entity that is has become. Let’s look at this process in developing this crucial document for a successful practice.

The Content

There are enough companies that have public Mission Statements that most people are aware that it is usually brief. It is occasionally a single sentence and rarely longer than two or three. When considering the content of your practice’s statement, the key is in the identification of each individual word so that you can convey the most information with the fewest words. It is unlikely that these words will simply trip off your tongue in the opening moments of your effort. For practices in which the doctor has spent the time identifying his values and developing a vision (Dental Economics, March, 2001), it will be easier to find the appropriate words. On the one hand, this is not an intellectual process in that the point is not to invent a lofty, philosophical treatise intended to impress others. It is a document created with the intention of accurately reflecting the genuine values of the practice so that others can and will see them more readily. On the other hand, it is a significant intellectual process in that it requires the use of language that is succinct, yet expansive in meaning. More like a college English paper, it requires the discipline to consider alternative word choices and to discuss within the group the meaning of each word and whether or not that word is a “fit” for the practice and its statement.

I would like to illustrate this point with a small portion of our practice’s current Mission Statement. The entirety of our statement appears at the top of this article. The first four words of this statement convey many facets of our practice and, not dissimilar from the United States constitution, allows enough interpretation that their validity still exists years after the writing of the statement. That is, each word contains a universal truth about the practice, not just a description of what we were doing at the moment we developed our statement. To understand the selection of these words may help you create your own Mission Statement.

We.  This short, simple word opens our statement because it is the clearest, simplest way of conveying the idea that a cohesive group of people makes up the practice. Alternative word choices might have been, “This practice,” “Dentistry for Children,” or some other specific description of the business aspect of the practice. Each would have been accurate and each would have conveyed a clear image of what we call our pediatric dental practice. In choosing a personal pronoun, the Mission Statement immediately establishes the importance of people in the business. I feel this carries a message of caring, touching and other human elements that supercede the business part of the practice. Another alternative may have been “The people,” “The professionals,” or “The employees.” In each case, we again would have been accurate, but would not have included the Team aspect of the practice. It has been through significant effort that Team (see Dental Economics, ____________) was established and the practice evolved from a group of individuals to a cohesive group. In the word “we,” this concept is conveyed.

Are. This may seem a rather obvious and simple choice of words. Upon further inspection, it takes on more significance when one considers its strength as opposed, for example, to the words “would like to be” or “strive to be.” Although this may appear trivial, it is not. The choice of “are” says that whatever follows is already accomplished. It is not a future goal or hope and it is not a gray zone—it is already in place. To select this word also sends a message back to the Team writing it—if each person is prepared to put his or her name on it, then the implication for being a cohesive group (“we”) is no longer a future event.

Success. This might be my favorite word in the entire Mission Statement. It accomplishes many things, not the least of which is clarifying the importance of our value of positive personal experience above the fact that we provide dental care. The obvious alternative word choice here would somehow have mentioned dentistry, but one of our strongest beliefs is that we give care that goes far beyond fixing teeth. Our focus is largely on the behavioral outcome of our clients’ visits and by moving our Mission Statement away from the technical aspect of our work, it reminds the Team that people and caring come before teeth and that insuring positive human outcomes supercedes technical perfection. This, by the way, is not to imply any diminution of technical excellence—it merely creates a statement of relative value. Much of the joy we experience in our pediatric practice is in the form of seeing children experience their visits and pop out of the chair happy and proud. Another part is watching parents observe their children rising to a potentially stressful challenge and being successful. This is at the core of our practice and our values and leads our Mission Statement intentionally.

Center. By selecting this word, we feel that the idea has been conveyed that we are not just a dental clinic, but that we are a resource for much more than teeth. Any time “office,” “clinic,” or “practice” come up, they immediately narrow the sphere of influence to a particular setting. This includes the implication that our expertise is somewhat limited. We feel we influence people’s behavior in non-dental ways. In particular, we feel we provide a new perspective for parents regarding their children and we give children the opportunity to have an experience that is positive and real. It is with these thoughts in mind that we felt any word that limited our Mission Statement to a purely “dental” message was too limiting.

By reviewing just these first four words, my intention is to give a clearer idea of how critical the content of the Mission Statement is. In the absence of clear values or a vision, it will be far more difficult to work through this process. On the other hand, it may actually provide an avenue for clarifying them. In my mind, the difficulty in beginning with the Mission Statement (prior to establishing values) is that it may be too easy to fall into the lofty, idealistic rhetoric that often evolves out of conversations, but cannot be duplicated in action.

The Process

Having been through many processes with yourself (Vision) and your Team (Meetings), you will be ready to embark on the most intensive, focused effort you will share with your Team. The time and energy spent on creating Team will now serve you well. Without having taken the previous steps, it would be nearly impossible for a group to come together to develop a Mission Statement. The participants in this process must be in tune with the values and philosophies of the practice—something that will not occur by osmosis.

The first step is to make sure everyone understands the purpose of the Mission Statement. If this is nothing more than an exercise, then it is best to wait. When everyone knows that this is an important stage of development of both the practice and the Team, it is appropriate to set time aside to generate the document. It is helpful to have a facilitator. Once the discussion around specific words begins, the participants may be too emotionally attached to their own ideas to hear the thoughts of others. In this way, a facilitator can help move things along and maintain the illusive neutrality that’s vital to this group process.

The second step is to dedicate a block of time to this one project. In my experience, a half-day may be too short. It is advisable to insure adequate time by scheduling an entire day. This may seem incredible for the creation of a one or two sentence statement, but when individual opinions start coming out, the time will suddenly move at warp speed. The good news is that if you manage to complete a well-thought-out statement in less than a full day, you can either celebrate (best choice) or move on to another topic.

The third step is to invite each person to individually suggest words that describe the practice. An important ground rule here is that no word is initially to be argued. Each person has an equal voice in the creation of this first list. This will require more than 5 minutes! The words should be written on a board or sheet so that everyone can see them. Once each person is satisfied that all the words are up (there should be many), then you proceed to a group process to narrow the list. Give each person 2 or 3 votes and let each one cast those votes with hash marks on the master list. Once the tally is completed, take the “winning” words and create a new, shorter list. It is at this point that conversations begin about what each word actually means. This will be a long process. At the end of this discussion, another vote can be taken to pare the list down further.

The fourth step is to split the Team into two (or more) groups. Each one is to draft a Mission Statement independently and is to incorporate the concepts growing out of the words selected in step three. This will also be a long process because you are working in groups of people with varying ideas and opinions. Set a time limit so that it will come to a tangible end product. You can determine your own time frame, but the larger the groups, the more time will be needed. I would suggest a minimum of 45 minutes, regardless of the group sizes.

The fifth step is come together to read each group’s Mission Statement and to spend the time understanding the “how’s” and “why’s” of each one. This will be the most animated conversation of the day because of the degree of effort and thought that has gone into the process. The facilitator will have an important role here. It now becomes the responsibility of the entire group to come to a single statement that will become the practice’s Mission Statement. It will be during this process that the significance of Team building will be apparent. The ability to genuinely hear each other and hold an opposing opinion will ultimately prove to serve the statement in positive ways. Without disagreement in some form, the group cannot have a genuine agreement. At the end of this process, you will have a precious document that was given birth by a process that will solidify the Team.

My experience of our Mission Statement has been that it has provided us with guidance, given the Team a focus and, upon scrutiny, has given us a tool to see how we’ve been doing. At one Team meeting, we actually looked at our Mission Statement and enumerated ways that the actual performance of the practice was reflected in the statement. It was an exhilarating experience and demonstrated that the practice had not drifted off course and also pointed out the wisdom of the document. While strenuous, I would recommend this process to any doctor looking to bring his practice and Team to a higher level of performance.

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