The Misguided Mission

Posted by on Aug 14, 2014 in News | No Comments


mission statement is meant to be the single most aspirational and powerful sentence a company produces, equally effective at rallying employees and encouraging outsiders. It isn’t. Why? It’s typically flawed in one of two ways:

1. It’s self-indulgent. A mission should be benefit-driven. It should speak to the impact a company can have in the world. Instead, because of the way we approach the assignment, it’s inwardly focused. It speaks to what a company wants to accomplish and how successful it wants to be. The problem with that is…the audience doesn’t care, nor should they.

For example:

Under Armour’s mission is to provide the world with technically advanced products engineered with our superior fabric construction, exclusive moisture management, and proven innovation.

“Providing” (i.e., selling) your product to the world isn’t a mission. It’s a quarterly sales objective.

2. It’s all-encompassing. A mission statement can be a window into a company’s culture, or at the very least, its internal review process. Often an entire executive team will weigh in on the statement since they’re all vested stakeholders in the company’s strategy and future. This group-think can be quite evident.

For example:

Our mission is to create richer lives and a better society by providing products, systems, and services with a new level of value and potential based on the latest advances in technology, especially knowledge and information technology.

Wow, Hitachi.

To accomplish the same goal in more effective fashion, apply the screenwriter’s method. As every script takes shape, the screenwriter develops the theme or premise of the story. It is the critical guiding force of the narrative arc and everything that resides within it. Robert McKee, in his landmark book Story, describes it as the “controlling idea.” He writes, “like theme, it names a story’s root or central idea, but it also implies function: the Controlling Idea shapes the writer’s strategic choices.”

Doesn’t that last part sound exactly like what a mission statement is meant to do? To serve as the ‘North Star’ for a company at all times so their decision-making is rooted in their reason-for-being as a company. In a single sentence, the Controlling Idea “describes how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.” Slightly altered for business, you would say it “describes how and why life undergoespositive change from one condition of existence without your brand to another with it.”

This shift in perspective is critical. Now the businessperson is thinking in terms of what will have great meaning to their audience and not great meaning to themselves. The beauty, of course, is that thinking first about delighting your customer improves the likelihood of financial success. For example, Google: “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In the information age, that’s needed, valued and lucrative.

If I were to apply the screenwriter’s method, I might rewrite Under Armour’s mission statement or controlling idea as:

Under Armour makes athletes, both serious and recreational, stronger in mind and body with equipment designed solely for optimal performance.

Each word is chosen purposefully. I know from reading this that:

  • Under Armour services athletes of all kinds, not just professionals
  • they recognize that performance is influenced by the athlete’s mentality
  • they’re expanding to product categories beyond apparel by saying “equipment”
  • performance will always trump fashion in their product design

Is that exactly true to Under Armour’s mission? I can’t know from outside the company and the board room. But one thing I do know: it’s a heck of a lot more inspiring and specific to what Under Armour wants to do for its customers.

[A version of this article was recently published in Fast Company]

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