In the early days of my company, I remember when my partners and I first discussed the idea of putting together a Mission Statement. It was just the three of us at the time, and I remember the conversation going something like this:
“Ugh, most Mission Statements are such B.S.”
“…let’s do one later.”
We were pretty clear on what we were trying to accomplish. And when it was only three of us, we communicated all day long. We were a hive mind. Why did we need a “Statement” to tell us what was up?
But as our company grew to 20, 50, 100 people, that kind of consensus became more evasive. New employees weren’t steeped in the vision we took for granted. People were asking the same questions about Contently’s purpose over and over.
So we circled back to the idea of Mission. To us, “Mission” meant something concrete we could communicate to our employees; something that could help people put the decisions they were making into the context of a common goal. At different stages of our growth, we revisited this again and again. The goalposts moved. Our ambitions got bigger. And guess what:
I’m a believer! Devising a creed that reflects your company isn’t just B.S. I’ve done this several times now, both at my own company and consulting at other startups, and in the process, I’ve landed on a formula that I like the best. It’s simple and powerful (as opposed to the one billion bits of confusing. advice. out. there. (These articles literally define mission fifty different ways. Ahhh!))
So, without further ado, the formula is…
Not a Mission Statement. Mission Statements tend to be problematic. I prefer three better things instead, but first let’s look at the two most common problems:
- Common Problem 1: the generic laundry list. Lots of Mission Statements are essentially lists of obvious things any business would want. Unless you’re the Suffolk County chapter of MS-13, you can pretty much assume all employees mean to be ethical, responsible, and low-key honest when it comes to padding timesheets and pilfering bathroom supplies. The graphic below is a real-live example of the laundry list Mission Statement in all its convoluted glory:
- Common Problem 2: the stubborn dinosaur. A lot of Mission Statements are SO rigid and specific they could kill a company if adhered to. These dinosaurs don’t accept the fact that in today’s economy we’re going to have to either evolve or die. Survivors tend to be flexible. They adapt as the market changes, and they adapt as they disprove their own assumptions.
In other words, Mission Statements often get in the way of what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is famous for saying great businesses need to do: (1) stay focused on your high-level vision; and (2) be flexible about how you achieve that high-level vision.
Back when we first started having our mission discussions years ago, one of my partners suggested we read Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why (here’s his TED talk which summarizes it nicely). Start With Why advocates for defining your Purpose before anything else. Why are you doing this business in the first place? Why does it matter?
Does that sound like a traditional Mission Statement to you?
According to Sinek and some smart thinkers like him, like the legendary folks at SYPartners, what you really need is a statement that embodies three things:
- Your reason for existing (PURPOSE),
- A picture of what you look like—and what the world looks like—because of your reason for existing (VISION), and finally:
- An evolving plan on how to get there (STRATEGY).
Here are a few examples to help make this concrete:
PURPOSE: Why you exist
Good: “We exist to help businesses become more authentic and helpful to their customers.” [This gets at the core of the experience or situation you want to change for a group of people.]
Bad: “We exist to build a $100mm self-serve software company.” [This is a How, not a To. This is also rigid enough to hurt your business. What if self-serve software goes the way of the fax machine? What if it doesn’t, but enterprise software ends up being the best thing in your category?
Also, framing your purpose this way is likely to be hella uninspiring to the troops.
Good: “We exist to bring happiness to people’s lives.” [This is broad and high-minded, and it leaves enough room to explore different opportunities as your business grows. It’s also a great way to focus the hearts and minds of your people on what’s important.]
Bad: “We exist to sell hamburgers to lots of people.” [This isn’t why you exist. This is just what you currently happen to sell. Then suddenly you realize people want something other than hamburgers…what now? Burn it down for the insurance money?]
VISION: What success looks like
Good: “Every major brand in the world will someday run on our platform.” [This paints a very clear picture of what the world looks like if you succeed.]
Bad: “We will use a freemium model to onboard 10,000 customers a year.” [The 10,000 customers thing is a worthy goal, but you don’t want to be rigid about how you achieve it. What happens if you learn that freemium doesn’t work as well as something else?]
Good: “We will sell a million hamburgers a day.” [This one’s OK because you can picture exactly what that looks like. You know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish, and you have the flexibility to plan accordingly.]
Bad: “We will hit our Q4 revenue numbers.” [Holy boring! Are you begging your people to decamp for more exciting jobs? This paints a picture, but that picture is pretty beige. You’re not going to inspire your people in the long run.]
STRATEGY: How you’ll get there… for now
Good: “We will build and sell quality, self-serve freemium tools for small businesses.[It’s specific. It says what you’ll do. It says who you’ll do it for.]
Bad: “We will adhere to the highest quality standards.” [I hope you will, but that’s still just one part of a Strategy. High-quality what? For whom?]
Good: “We will roll out franchises in every major city in America.” [Sounds like you have your work cut out for you, but that’s a real Strategy. Go big or go home!]
Bad: “We will beat McDonalds.” [No joke, I’ve heard stuff like this, and honestly…I just think it’s a bad way to formulate a Strategy. How do you imagine you’re going to do it?]
A laundry list of virtues and goals doesn’t do nearly as much for your team as (1) a strong, stated Purpose; (2) a Vision of what you’re trying to accomplish; and (3) a flexible marching Strategy for how you’re going to get there. With these, you can leave the term “Mission Statement” out of your vocabulary entirely—no B.S.
Want to Work Smarter?
I’ve created a little cheat sheet for how to use lateral thinking to change your work and life, based on science and my bestselling book Smartcuts. It’s free.
This article first appeared on Linkedin.com.