Most mission statements are written to sound inspiring but in reality they’re too broad and fluffy to be of any practical use. In this article I’ll explain why you need to unlearn the traditional approach to writing mission statements and give you a powerful framework to effectively communicate the change you want to bring about and align your team.
Read on to learn more or jump to any of these sections:
- The tradition: vision, mission, and values
- Difference between a vision and mission statement
- Rethinking vision and mission: write one statement
- Why do mission statements fail?
- What are the main elements of a mission statement?
- How to write a mission statement
- Framework for writing a mission statement
- Mission statement examples (the Radical Product Thinking way)
- Most common mistakes when writing a mission statement
- Frequently asked questions
The Tradition: Mission, Vision, and Values
Most organizations have a triad structure of vision, mission, and values to communicate who they are and what they stand for. Although this structure was intended to offer employees clarity, this triad format has instead generated much confusion.
The difference between a vision and mission statement is often the first source of confusion when using this triad approach. Should it be the vision statement that is broader and the mission statement which offers more detail, or the other way around? In either case, you’ve most likely noticed that values may be written as part of this triad but don’t feature in the regular discourse.
Difference Between A Vision And Mission Statement
Traditionally, the vision statement is intended to show employees in broad and aspirational terms where the company is going and the hopes and dreams a company has. In this context, the mission statement is designed to provide a more detailed picture of the problem and is designed to be more actionable - it answers the question of how the company will bring about the vision.
Traditional examples of vision and mission statements
Vision: Provide the world’s best customer experience every day.
Mission: Become essential to our customers by providing differentiated products and services to help them achieve their aspirations.
Vision: We aspire to be the best in aerospace and an enduring global industrial champion.
Mission: Our purpose and mission is to connect, protect, explore and inspire the world through aerospace innovation.
Rethinking Vision And Mission: Write One Statement
Having two separate statements just creates more cognitive load and makes employees feel like they also need to remember which statement was which. To remove the unnecessary confusion, many companies today have a single statement.
For example, Nike’s website doesn’t have a vision statement. It states its mission as:
“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.
*If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
Asana, a project management and collaboration platform, also did away with a separate vision statement. Its website says that its mission is “to help humanity thrive by enabling all teams to work together effortlessly.”
Whether you call it a mission or vision, the Radical Product Thinking way is to write a single statement to align your team. But a radical statement doesn’t sound like the examples above.
Why Do Mission Statements Fail?
Although creating a single statement is a great first step, these statements above are entirely too broad. Let’s take the example of Asana’s mission statement of helping humanity thrive by enabling all teams to work together effortlessly. This could describe Slack, or a telecom company describing its corporate phone plan, or even an events management team that organizes corporate offsites! The problem with such a statement is that pretty much anything fits.
You need a clear North Star that points the way and that acts as a filter so that when you hold up a feature against this statement and ask, “Should we do this?”, sometimes the answer should be “No! Don’t!”
A broad mission statement that doesn’t provide adequate direction leads to a myopic focus on short-term business needs.
When you write mission statements that are broad and aspirational but provide little direction on what problem you’re trying to solve, what ends up driving your actions are the urgent and short-term needs of your business. If prioritization is a difficult exercise at your company, most likely your mission statement is too broad. What you need is a detailed and compelling statement that answers a few profound questions for your team.
What Are the Main Elements of a Mission Statement?
I’ve found that a good mission statement has three important elements:
- It describes the problem you want to see solved in the world. It shouldn’t be about your aspirations for your organization at all. In fact, you know you’re on the right track if you describe a problem that you want to see solved even if you were to take yourself and your organization out of the picture.
- It describes a tangible end state you can visualize. When your goal is a tangible, visualizable end state instead of something abstract, people can internalize it and make it their own dream.
- It is meaningful to you and the people you intend to impact. Your mission must resonate with the people whose lives you want to impact, since you want them alongside you on this journey. When you share your mission statement with your customers they should be nodding along with you.
How To Write A Mission Statement
In writing your mission statement, you’ll want to condense the three elements above into one detailed statement that articulates the change you envision and how you’ll bring it about.
You can learn more about Radical Product Thinking workshops where you can work with me to craft a compelling statement that aligns your team.
To craft a mission statement, you need to ask the who, what, why, when, and how questions:
- Who: Whose world are you setting out to change? You need to define a specific and identifiable group - you can’t change the world for everyone.
- What: What is their problem and what’s the solution they’re using today??
- Why: Why does this world need changing? Unless there’s a clear reason that the status quo is absolutely unacceptable, there’s no real need for your product.
- When: When will you know that you’ve arrived?
- How: How will you bring about this world? This is finally where you can talk about your product, approach, or technology.
Even when you know you have to answer these who, what, why, when, how questions, I’ve found that starting with a blank sheet of paper is unproductive – it leaves you stuck and focusing on finding the perfect words instead of answering these profound questions.
To help with this, you can use the Radical Product Thinking toolkit – it’s a fill-in-the-blanks statement that makes it easier to write such a single statement to align your team on the problem you’re setting out to solve, why it needs to be solved, and the world you envision as a result.
Framework for writing a mission statement
Many teams have been inspired by Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why and have tried to adopt that approach for writing a mission statement.
While I agree with Sinek’s approach that tells you focus on why your organization exists instead of focusing on your product or solution, the problem is that this framework doesn’t provide adequate structure. Even when you heartily believe in starting with the Why, it’s really hard to articulate your Why on a blank sheet of paper with nothing to guide you. If you’ve tried this exercise at a corporate offsite, most likely you have experienced the pain of feeling trapped in a never ending game of buzzword-bingo.
Instead, the RPT approach guides you to your Why using a fill-in-the-blanks approach. The first part of the RPT worksheet helps you define whose problem you’re setting out to solve and why it’s imperative that the problem must be solved. The second half of the worksheet helps you define the end state when the problem is solved and what your solution is for bringing this about.
Radical Product Thinking framework for a mission statement
Mission Statement Examples (The Radical Product Thinking Way)
Whether you call it your vision or your mission, in the Radical Product Thinking way, your statement should be detailed and sound more like an essay than a short slogan such as “to be the leader in XYZ”. A detailed statement creates alignment and gives your team the blueprint they need to know what to build.
Here are filled out examples of the Radical Product Thinking Mad Libs statement for different types of companies:
The following is the statement for Likelii, a B2C startup I had founded and that was acquired in 2014:
Today when [amateur wine drinkers], want to [find wines they are likely to like], they have to [pick wines based on attractive labels or try what’s on sale]. This is unacceptable because [it’s hard to learn about wine this way and leads to many disappointments]. We envision a world where [finding wines you like is as simple as renting movies on Netflix]. We are bringing this world about through [our recommendations engine that helps you find wines you’re likely to like, and our operational setup that quickly delivers those wines to your table].
Brevity & Wit, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consulting firm, filled out the Mad Libs statement as follows:
Today when [creative, wholehearted, ethical people], want to [live in financial comfort and take care of their families and loved ones], they have to [sell their souls or overwork to make money]. This is unacceptable because [it perpetuates systems of oppression, where behavior that is harmful to people, the environment, or the future of humanity is incentivized]. We envision a world where [creative, wholehearted, ethical folks can be highly paid professionals, thereby incentivizing others to do good, and allowing creative, wholehearted, ethical individuals and organizations to use their money as medicine to connect, heal, and repair our world]. We are bringing this world about through [ethical design and consulting services that open doors in people’s minds to new ways of being, behaving, organizing, and building institutions].
Most Common Mistakes When Writing a Mission Statement
Rethinking your mission statement requires unlearning a lot of traditional teaching from business schools. Here are the most common mistakes that leaders make when writing a mission statement:
1. Wordsmithing to write short and memorable mission statements
We’ve learnt that these statements must be short and easy to remember. But it’s important to realize that employees and customers aren’t going to identify with your mission because they’ve memorized a slogan.
Memorization is not useful. The alignment you’re seeking comes from having a shared understanding of the answers to the who, what, why, when, and how questions.
Instead of getting employees to memorize your words, you know your mission statement is working if your employees can articulate your shared vision in their own words.
2. Expecting your mission statement to be constant and unchanging
Traditional thinking is that your mission must be constant and unchanging. But think about how fast the market and the technological landscape changes. In such a fast moving world, what use is an unchanging mission statement? A broad and unchanging mission statement turns out to be too high level to provide any real direction to the team.
In the RPT way, you need to review your statement regularly. If you’re an early stage startup, you might review it every month because of the pace at which you’re learning about your market. On the other hand, if you’re working on a mature product, you should review this at least every year as you review your strategic plan.
3. Not including your team in setting your direction setting
We’ve come to believe that the leaders at the top write the mission statement – the rest of the company just follows along. In reality, every person in your company has a role to play to contribute towards your shared end-goal. You need them to buy into your mission so they’ll be self-driven in pursuing it.
When you want to get your team to buy-into and internalize a shared mission, the model of a leader presenting a company mission like Moses descending with his commandments just doesn’t work. Instead you need to co-create your mission statement with your team. A facilitated workshop makes this exercise easier - you can book a Radical Product Thinking workshop to guide your team through such an exercise.
Frequently asked questions
Here are the answers to the questions I get most often when I run workshops:
1. Can you change your mission statement?
Yes! In fact, you should review your statement at least every year if you’re working on a more mature product, and possibly every quarter if you’re working on an early stage startup.
2. Should the mission statement be measurable?
No, while it’s tempting to measure and quantify everything, your mission statement should not have metrics. It should instead describe the problem you want to see solved for a group of people, and what the world looks like for them when you’ve created the change you envision. Often performance metrics tend to be centered around the company’s goals and aspirations rather than the users’ needs.
3. Can a mission statement be about revenues or company valuation?
No, a mission statement focused on revenues or valuation leads to an inward focus and frequently leads to the product disease I call Narcissus Complex, the disease that strikes when you’re so focused on your own goals that you become disconnected from what your users need. While you’re focusing on your own goals, a competitor focused on solving a well-defined problem for users can build a better product and has the upper hand.
4. How long should a mission statement be?
Your mission statement can even be a paragraph. It needs to be long and detailed enough to create alignment in your team. The goal is not to have your team memorize the words in your mission statement - they need to internalize the answers to the profound questions of who, what, why, when, and how.
5. Who should write the mission statement for the company?
The leadership team should write the mission statement together in a group exercise. Such an exercise helps air out where your team is misaligned and generates productive discussions so that everyone is bought into a shared mission. Check out the Innovation Training workshops to learn about facilitated sessions to help you craft your mission statement.
6. Who owns the product vision?
The Product Manager owns the product vision. To craft the product vision, the PM should look at the company’s mission statement and make sure that the product vision is aligned with it. The PM should also work with the team and stakeholders to align the team and craft a shared product vision. Check out the Product Management Training workshops to learn about facilitated sessions to help you craft your product vision.
7. What makes a good mission statement?
A good mission statement is detailed enough to align your team on what to build. It tells you what problem you’re setting out to solve and articulates what the world looks like when you’ve completed your mission. It resonates with your customers - they agree that the problem you describe needs to be solved. And lastly, it acts as a filter and stops you from irrelevant pursuits.