U.S. Space Force: Know Thyself?

U.S. Space Force: Know Thyself?

I have a history of writing on and on about mission statements, whether they are for space businesses or the U.S. military. I focus on these statements because they give some idea of what either is about. Some provide a decent idea, a few are excellent, and many are just awful.

The Concerned General

Recently, the U. S. Space Force’s (USSF) Chief of Space Operations (CSO) General Chance Saltzman observed: …I have some concerns with our current mission statement.

He didn’t make the observation privately or in confidence to an aide. He didn’t throw it out for reporters to chew on. Instead, he noted it publicly to his troops in his latest “CSO NOTICE TO GUARDIANS (C-NOTE #12).” Even more unusually, he didn’t propose a ready-made solution. His immediate subordinates didn’t push presentations for why the service should adopt their fixes (that we know of).

Instead, he asked his troops for their help. At the end of the C-Note, Saltzman suggests and requests:

The HQSF staff has begun the process of developing alternatives to the current Space Force mission statement, and we need your help. How do you feel about the current mission statement? Are there additional criteria we should consider when evaluating proposed alternatives? Suggest and debate alternatives with the other members of your unit. You can share your thoughts with HQSF staff at ocso.feedback@spaceforce.mil. We will use this feedback to shape the direction of this effort.

Saltman’s engagement with the troops isn’t a magic bullet, even if it is (unfortunately) unique behavior from a general. Also, his paragraph displays so much of the jargon usually seen in the DoD (Shape the direction? Really?). So the resulting revised mission statement could still be terrible. But if it is, it might still be better overall because at least everyone in the USSF got some chance to shape the mission statement (which is, frankly, the point), not the result of an upper-echelon manager believing that KPIs would make a great mission statement.

However, the general provided some guidance that might help avoid some of the business jargon the military loves to incorporate in, well, everything. Saltzman provided four attributes to guide his troops for potential changes to the USSF’s mission statement. Before getting to those, I will list my mission statement criteria and quickly support my choices.

Knowing the Mission, or Not?

My judging criteria are straightforward (and to be clear, these are MY criteria–I am not a professional). Mission statements need to be short, use simple and impactful words, and show why the organization is needed. If it fails to meet any of those criteria, then the mission statement is uninspiring at best.

Short typically means it’s easy to remember. It’s easy to shout out in formation. That ease removes barriers to soldiers (and employees) adopting the mission statement on a personal level. But shortness is just the start. It helps with rote memorization, but it must also be inspirational. It must be better than my short mission statement: “Ai right gud daylee.”

Inspiration, for example, should be inherent in the statement. However, inspiration is a tricky thing, especially if the organization is unsure about what exactly it’s supposed to be about. Simple words help, but they should be economical, containing layers in their meanings. They contain values, emotions, visualizations, etc. They could be heroic, humble, action-oriented, prideful, and more. Importantly, they should be honest, describing what the people in the organization aspire to be as they rock and roll their mission.

On the other hand, a lengthy mission statement demonstrates that the organization is better at efficiently operationalizing its strategies while holistically administering exceptional synergy. In other words, the longer, more wordy a mission statement is, especially if it’s full of non-value/non-content words, the greater the chance that the organization it describes is clueless about its purpose.

A mission statement’s wordiness also indicates an unwillingness to leave something out, which is based on fear. Maybe the management is afraid to exclude a sentence or paragraph that someone else might point to as a critical part of the mission.

An example of a good mission statement in the space industry comes from Planet. And if it sounds familiar, you’ve either frequented Planet’s site quite a bit or read my article referring to it over three years ago. From Planet’s “company” page:

Planet was founded with the mission to image the Earth every day and make change visible, accessible, and actionable.

It’s not fantastic, but it is short and makes its mission clear.

Moving Away from the USSF’s Mission Paragraph

Compare that with the U.S. Space Force’s mission statement, which, if it were written in the time of Moses, would require more than two tablets:

The USSF is responsible for organizing, training, and equipping Guardians to conduct global space operations that enhance the way our joint and coalition forces fight, while also offering decision makers military options to achieve national objectives.

Imagine shouting that out in formation. As an aside, I don’t know what “Lines of Effort” (listed below that statement) means, but all three look pretty weak.

Based on the USSF’s U.S. Air Force origins, such a long snoozer is sadly the predictable and inherited result. And it’s not just that the U.S. Air Force is notoriously terrible with its catalogs of mission statements. It’s also because it seems that the USAF couldn’t define what a space force was. I’ve already written about the USAF’s history of fumbling with space operations, adding specialties, taking them out, mixing in new ones, etc.

The USSF could still be dealing with the fallout from those decades of fumbling. It certainly was when it became a service a few years ago. Moreover, the additional task of incorporating space operators from other services, such as those from the Army and the Navy, probably contributed to the mission challenges confronting the USSF (aside from the whole “space is hard” cliché).

Based on the C-Note, Saltzman is attempting to distill the mission. In some ways, it’s a morale problem. He realizes the current mission statement nonsense does nothing to inspire his troops. Instead, it’s a nod to bean-counting decision-makers who don’t need inspiration–just assurance (which is so typically Air Force–at least, some parts of it). This, rightfully, subjects the USSF to mockery. Unfortunately, the current mission statement is so bureaucratic, so full of meaningless words, that a regular person’s impressions of nonsense are valid. There are no hearts and minds won with the current mission statement.

But that mockery can also demoralize the people trying their best to accomplish missions. This is probably an underlying motive for Saltzman and why he set out the four criteria for his Guardians to consider as they get creative with the mission statement. It must be informative, memorable, inclusive, and generate buy-in. His criteria do not quite match mine. But then, he’s the guy leading space warriors and presumably is closer to understanding his troops’ needs.

While businesses with terrible mission statements don’t usually deal with life-and-death scenarios, the USSF is in the warfare business. So getting to know itself and what it wants to be will potentially help give its troops focus. And while fixing the mission statement itself won’t address fundamental organizational challenges, it will help create an essential component of any organization–culture. It will be interesting to see the results of this experiment. Saltzman’s recognition of this problem and his initiative in getting the USSF’s troops involved to resolve are pleasant surprises.

As long as they all figure out their mission.