Have a meaningful mission and tell the story

“When 6,000 students at the beginning of their career have been asked where they prefer to work Google is number one. The reason? The company is best in explaining why it exist.” […] “IKEA is number two in the study that is made by Academic Work and the market research company TNS Sifo. Like Google, IKEA gets credited for their clarity around their purpose.”

– Svenska Dagbladet (www.svd.se), June 26 2015

I’ve written about this before, but surprisingly few companies are good at telling the story about why they exist. Most companies actually don’t tell any story at all. Why is this? Today there is a lot of indications showing that having a meaningful purpose/mission is one of the main factors of attracting, retaining and motivating top-talent. It also guides innovation and all activities in a company in the same direction. Still most companies do so little in this area. Why?

I believe that companies just need to take a moment to get their head around this and pull themselves together. I.e. they simply don’t have a meeting in their calendar (yet) for reviewing the company mission. So pencil it in and continue reading.

What you need to do as a management team and board is to be able to tell the story about why you are in business in a way that people easily understand in what way you try to make their lives better. Forget about trying to over-engineer difficult differences between vision, mission, values etc. Just write a short story about why you are in business and summarize it in one sentence.

What characterizes a great mission is the following:

  • It explains in what way you make life better for your customers – Some missions are too focused on the company or shareholders instead of the customer/people. Ensure that your mission talks about how you want to improve something for people that is not there today.
  • It’s honest – Some companies tries to create missions that masquerades a questionable business model. Take all tobacco, candy and soft drink companies as examples.
  • It’s about what you really do – Some missions are too distanced from the actual business of the company. Supporting the cure for cancer if you sell cars is not a mission, it’s charity and something completely different. If you sell cars you could instead look at what role you can play in road safety, which would be linked to your core business.
  • It runs throughout the entire organization – A mission is not a paper product. It’s something that all employees lives and breathes every day. Try waking up 10 random employees and ask what your mission is, if everyone answers the same thing it runs throughout the organization.
  • It is easy to summarize and tell the story – A great mission can be summarized in one sentence and can also be told as a story.

Another thing to take into account when formulating the mission is to not make it too abstract and not too concrete.

Example of a too abstract mission (Honda): Maintaining a global viewpoint, we are dedicated to supplying products of the highest quality, yet at a reasonable price for worldwide customer satisfaction

Example of a too narrow mission (fictive): Provide the best baby safety seats in the world

Honda manages to include all of the words you’re supposed to say without saying anything. The fictive company limits the mission to very specific products, putting them in a limited corner from a product innovation point of view.

Two examples of what great missions look like:

Lego:

Inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow

Our ultimate purpose is to inspire and develop children to think creatively, reason systematically and release their potential to shape their own future – experiencing the endless human possibility

GreatFood4All.com:

Mission – We want to democratize great food

We believe that what people eat should make them happy, alert, healthy and awesome! We believe it should be super easy for everyone to understand what makes great food. Food should be great for you, your health, your tastebuds, your time. It should also be great for the environment and society at large. There are many companies trying to benefit financially from people’s insecurity around health, and wish to lose weight, by using non-scientific methods. There are also many companies trying to promote either straight out unhealthy food, or masquerade unhealthy food as healthy. Our commitment to you is that we will continuously monitor all real evidence-based research and innovation in food from all around the world from universities, companies and other organizations. We will summarize it and make it super easy for you to always know how far science is in this field. We will never be done and we will never be perfect. That said, we will always aim to be helpful and keep it simple so that everyone can have great food. Great food for all!

In these two cases the core mission can really be summarized in one sentence, just as they have a story to it as well.

When summarizing a mission, what is needed is three things:

  • The summary sentence
  • The short story
  • A list of 3-5 examples of what you are, and 3-5 examples of what you are not

The examples helps with really enabling people in a growing organization to understand how to live the mission. Ensure that the examples of what you are not are not too obvious, but pick things in the grey zone where people would be “Aha, so that’s what you mean”.

If you are unsure where to start the work in formulating your mission, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Invite the key people to a half day workshop (CEO, owners, most important strategic partner to get an outside perspective, someone great at copy to do the writing).
  2. List what you actually do, i.e. what is it that you sell as a product, provide as a service – be concrete.
  3. List how people benefit from what you do – Do they save time, money, become happier, stronger etc – Be honest, but also don’t hesitate to make the list long, since most companies provides more benefits that you initially think about.
  4. Looking at the list of benefits you provide, pick the most important one and build a story around what you do to achieve that end benefit. In the case of GreatFood4All the core benefit is simplicity.
  5. Share the story with employees to get feedback on it, refine it and run with it. Remember to make it BIG.

I want to close off by really challenging every industry and company to have a high ambition for making people’s lives genuinely better. Just to get your thoughts going around what it could look like for companies in different industries, here are some thought-starters…

Banks: Enable growth in wealth for everyone and for society at large by making people financially savvy

Today there is a broad knowledge gap in how to deal with your personal finances between different people. This puts some people in a situation where they don’t have their money in accounts with the highest interest rates, where they don’t negotiate loan rates, where they spend more than they earn, and where they save in equity funds paying fees to banks that they don’t know exist nor do they understand how they work. What if instead a bank would aim at teaching everyone how it works and take the consequences for it? Teaching people that it’s better to have your money in an account with a higher interest rate than in one with a lower interest rate and that any loan offered by someone that is not a bank is not worth taking, and how to calculate the true cost of that loan. What if people were so financially savvy so it was the best products that won, not the products pushed to most people not knowing what they are buying?

Travel: Inspire friendship by understanding each other

In a world with a lot of anxiety between different groups of people, a travel company setting out to prevent racism could create some really great products and offers based on this mission. They could for example use the strategy to take tourists beyond the facade and enable people to really get to know the societies they visit (instead of just the pool at the hotel). Perhaps even get a local contact before and after the trip? Or take on a local profession for a day or two during the trip?

Grocery retail: Enable people to live happy and healthy lives in a sustainable society by always enable them to improve

On the one hand grocery retailers are doing a good job in introducing more Fair Trade and organic alternatives, vegetarian recipes, nutrition advice etc. On the other hand the cashier lines (where sales are multiple times bigger than any other place in the store) are many times still filled with refined sugar marketed as different types of candy. What if a grocery retailer would really take on enabling people to live happy and healthy lives by helping them to continuously improve? Imagine for example that you could take your shopping list and just press a button to get it upgraded to become more environmentally friendly, healthy, fast to cook or cheaper to buy.

Telecommunications: Give everyone equal opportunities on a global market by removing the aspect of distance

Many telcos face the challenge of being seen as electricity providers but providing broadband connection instead. What if a telco would focus on removing the aspect of distance – which products would it provide? Perhaps consultation to companies to enable employees to work from home, saving the company and society lots of costs when you get it right? Or enable people to go to university in another country without being there? Or perhaps they would have been the ones inventing some of the really big messaging services now taking over the world?

Furniture/home decoration: Make it easy to live your style by knowing it

People spend an awful lot of time and money on home decoration. What if a company within furniture or home decoration set out to make it super easy to live your style, instead of over-investing time in it? When I go online and browse for sofas for example, it’s like no company knows anything about my style – why would they otherwise offer me 20,000 different sofas where I need one? Imagine a company focusing on making it easy to live my style by only taking a picture of ten furnitures I love and then filter the whole Internet to only show things super relevant to my style.

Snacks/soda company: Enable people to indulge long-term sustainably by only offering healthy options

If you are a snacks company selling candy, having a meaningful purpose is far fetched. That said, there are so many healthy snacks to be invented that have not yet been invented because most snacks companies have been too preoccupied capitalizing on the immediate reward system of the brain. There are so many things that tastes amazing and that are still good for you. Imagine being a snacks company that sets out to create candy that tastes better than everything else on the market and that’s also good for you, what a mission!

As said, above examples are not meant as prescriptions. They merely serve as inspiration for how to think about having a meaningful mission and what consequences it could have on you strategy, products etc.

So, in any company or other organization that you are in, the leader and everyone else including yourself should be able to tell the story about the company’s mission in a way that attracts top talent and guide the product innovation of that company for years to come. A story that you get goosebumps from listening to. A story about an organization that wants to change the world as we know it. Get your mission straight. Now.

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