In this interview with Tom Kippola, Co-Founder and Managing Director of the Chasm Group, he talks about how to craft a great mission statement for your company. Tom has helped hundreds of companies achieve strategic breakthroughs through his consulting work. And that work often starts with writing down the mission, sometimes for the very first time. Here are some of the key insights learned from the conversation (interview lightly edited for clarity).
What is a company mission statement and why is it important to have one?
A mission statement is the “why”. And the vision statement is the “what”. So, the mission is why a company exists other than to make money. The vision statement is what a company wants to become.
A mission statement and a vision statement have to front-end the strategy because they inform the strategy, which informs the OKRs, which informs the initiatives, which informs the execution. So good mission and vision statements lead to good strategy and ultimately to results.
It’s potentially a pretty daunting task to write these down if you’ve never done it as a team. Can you walk us through the process? How do you get started?
I use what I’ll call a modified “Five Why’s” process. I’m typically working with executive teams, so 6-12 people, and we’ll start out with the “what” of the business. So in Koan’s case: “Koan provides an OKR and status platform”. If I were advising your company and taking you through this, I would ask every member in that session “why is that important”? And then look at what that they wrote down, and ask, “now why is *that* important”? And keep repeating that usually three to five times. That gets us to candidates for the mission statement. I then ask them to share with the group, and we have a discussion. I’ve built a whole voting mechanism to help narrow it down from there. Usually, we’ll get 10, 20, 30 that are submitted to the group, but we need to narrow it down to some smaller numbers 5, 6, 7, so that we can have longer discussions. And so sometimes there are multiple rounds of votes so that we can get down to the final one that we want to use. It’s not uncommon for us to not finish the mission statement in the first session. Sometimes people need to sleep on it a few nights; sometimes people will come back with additional words or ideas in a subsequent session. We’ll then have a discussion on it, and we’ll vote again.
As you keep asking “why” and peeling back the layers, how do you know when you’re done and that you’ve found the mission statement?
There are three questions to ask yourself, to determine if you’ve found your mission statement:
- Is it short and sweet? I have some teams that will come up with a mission statement that’s really a bunch of clauses separated by commas. And usually, that’s where you have people that are different factions in a team who want different things in a mission statement, and we’ve not narrowed it down to one thing. So short and sweet is the first thing.
- Is it good for the world? Because ultimately, that’s what a mission statement is, isn’t it? It’s what your company or organization can do to serve the world.
- What’s the level of buy-in? If you have eight people, and they’re all 6 out of 10’s in terms of buy-in, through either body language, or voting, or both, that’s not a good mission statement because it’s probably a wasted exercise. So I want to get people to 9’s and 10’s. And I want to get as many of them as possible feeling energized by it.
The process itself of setting your mission is important. Making it inclusive, both with the executive team and then with the company more broadly.
What if you’re a company that isn’t working on a cure for cancer, or completely revolutionizing some aspect of our business or consumer lives? Is it possible for every company to have a mission statement that’s about a positive impact on the world?
What I find is that people go through this “Five Why’s” exercise and they get to a point somewhere around the third time that they ask “why” that there’s a fork in the road, and they can go down one of two paths. One path is all about them and their company. And that’s not the path we want them to go down. The other path is how they’re better serving customers, and how those customers are better serving their customers, and how by better serving that customer, the world is better somehow. I suppose there are some kinds of product categories where this would be difficult. But for most legal product categories, I think the answer is yes, you can come up with why your company makes the world better.
Can your mission statement change over time?
In the short to medium term, you really don’t want it to change. It can be adjusted a little bit, though. I think sometimes what happens two or three years down the road is that a company will change it 10%, perhaps a word here or there because they’ve learned more about their business. They might make it a little bit more clear because they’re really narrowing the mission. But in the first handful of years, you generally don’t want to change the mission statement beyond that because then it has a significant ripple effect through everything else — the strategy, the OKRs, the initiatives, the execution. In the long term, there are companies that have achieved some level of success and now their eyes are wider. Perhaps Amazon’s mission statement has changed over the years as they’ve gone from selling books, to selling everything, to now AWS and grocery stores. And that’s a widening of the mission because they have so many more resources to go after more opportunities. But generally, for most companies, if you’re looking for the first handful or so of years, you don’t want to change it or you don’t want to change it much. The mission statement is the specific words in which you’re articulating the mission. And that you might tweak that, even if you don’t want to tweak it that often. But the mission itself is something deeper if you’ve actually gone through this process and uncovered it.
Goals and OKRs are essential. Is it important to have a mission and strategy before trying to set your goals? Or can you just dive in and say, “hey, let’s put that other high-level stuff aside for a second and just figure out our goals”?
I had a client that I walked into a couple of years ago that did that. In the first session, they showed me their strategy. And their strategy was a bunch of goals. And in fact, they were really well thought out goals. And these folks were executors and I don’t doubt that they would have achieved most if not all of those goals. But those goals were annual goals. And a strategy looks well beyond one year. It’s looking to achieve the mission and the vision. Just achieving this year’s goals doesn’t necessarily set you up to achieve the mission or the vision. Achieving the mission and vision may be multiple chess moves over multiple years. And so I think it’s important to have both a mission and a vision to inform the strategy. Then the strategy not only informs what you’re going to achieve this year for this year’s sake, but what you’re going to achieve this year to set yourself up for what’s next with the mission and vision.
When is it appropriate for a company to work on their mission statement and to spend the time to formally write it down as a team?
Anyone that wants a well-defined strategy, even one that will change through product-market fit. Anyone that wants crisp OKRs; even OKRs that will change from quarter to quarter as you’re learning product-market fit, can benefit from mission and vision. Because it’s, again, they help narrow the scope of what we’re going to consider when we’re building strategy. Without mission and vision, the scope of what we might do is much broader, and just makes things much more inefficient vs. doing it while actually having a mission and vision. So even if you’re a pretty early-stage startup, this is worth spending a bit of time on.
Writing down a mission statement can be a powerful and impactful process for most CEOs. If a CEO wants to do this formally, it’s clear from this conversation that having an external facilitator can be really helpful in guiding the conversation and in asking those “why’s” and in running the voting process. If you don’t have an external facilitator, any recommendations for what a CEO or an executive team could do to run this for themselves?
I’d recommend starting with a bunch of the things that I’ve mentioned here, particularly the “Five Why’s” exercise the idea of letting everybody participate. I’m a big believer that people support what they help create. So if you can get the whole executive team involved in the process, you’re going to have more buy-in around what comes out of that process. So getting the whole executive team is important. I would not have the two co-founders go off and build something and then walk back in and say, “here it is”, or, “we’ll let you change two words”. That’s not going to go over as well, you need broad consensus. You need to make this be an inclusive process to actually get the value you’re looking for. And teams need to struggle together through it. It’s not easy and it may take dozens and dozens of iterations. But that struggle is where the buy-in comes from.
While I think teams can do it themselves, and I’ve seen that a number of times, I think it can be really challenging. When doing it without an outsider you ultimately have to ask “who’s going to facilitate this”? And usually, the answer is the CEO. There are a couple of challenges there. The CEO may have done this one or two times before, but they don’t have the frameworks or experience of somebody that’s done it 100 times before. I think even more importantly, it puts the CEO in a potentially difficult position because the CEO has to be both the facilitator and a participant. That puts the team members in a position where now they’re trying to determine what the CEO wants. And if the CEO is putting their thumb on the process too much, then it’s not a democratic process and you’re not going to get as much buy-in. So in addition to frameworks and experience, having somebody that’s more of a neutral party that can then allow the CEO to become a participant is really valuable, and that along with greater team buy-in is a critical value-add to having a facilitator.
If you can hire an external facilitator, that’s the best way to do this. I’ve also seen it work to have a company advisor come in to facilitate. If you make sure that the CEO can be a participant vs. leading the process so that you’ve made it a truly inclusive process for everyone.
You’ve gone through the process, and now you’ve written down the mission statement. Now what? What does the process look like to roll it out? Let’s assume you’re a slightly larger organization — how do you get that buy-in from the rest of your employees? And what do you actually do with this mission statement as your business moves forward?
There are three answers I’ll give you.
- The mission helps inform the strategy. So once the strategy process is begun, it’s important to look back at that mission statement occasionally, and ask “are we still consistent with that mission statement”? And of course, when the strategy is all done, you want to ask again “is this consistent with that mission statement”?
- Host a town hall meeting. Beyond the executive team, what I’ve seen work for rollout is that CEOs will do a town hall with the whole organization. Even better has been when the CEO has asked me to facilitate mini-town halls. So instead of having one town hall where it was rolled out to all 150 people, there 15 town halls of 10 people. It’s more intimate and people can actually comment. In some cases, it even had the impact of changing a word or two. The meetings didn’t change the mission itself, but they may have changed the statement slightly.
- Leverage your mission for recruiting. Your mission probably has the biggest impact here. I think, increasingly, companies need to bring people on board that are with the mission. And I say “increasingly” because I think younger people are generally more mission-oriented than people who are decades older. And so I think it’s not only a recruiting tool, but it’s a way to assess whether one should bring on that candidate. People are hungry for a more purpose-driven work experience and to know that they can make an impact. And if you’re missing the very top of the pyramid, the mission statement, it’s pretty hard to create that work experience and to find the right team to help you do it.
If you have any questions about what we’ve discussed in this post, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Learn more about Tom Kippola or the Chasm Group.