Excerpted with the permission of the author from Chapter Four of A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger
The philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you take for granted.” So let’s apply this to the corporate mission statement— something that is often taken for granted, ignored, occasionally ridiculed. What if we were to take the typical mission statement and hang a question mark on the end of it?
First let’s consider why a company might want to do this. It’s assumed that a declarative “statement” makes a company seem confident, more sure of its mission, more determined. But mission statements tend to have a different effect . They often sound arrogant. They come across as not quite credible. They seem “corporate” and “official,” which also means they’re a bit stiff. Often they’re banal pronouncements (We save people money so they can live better. —Walmart) or debatable assertions (Yahoo! is the premier digital media company) that don’t offer much help in gauging whether a company is actually living up to a larger goal or purpose.
And sometimes they sound as if they’re saying the mission has already been accomplished , and now the company is just in maintenance mode. In these dynamic times, it seems appropriate to take that static statement and transform it into a more open- ended, fluid mission question that can still be ambitious (replacing, for example, We make the world a better place through robotics! with How might we make the world a better place through robotics?).
By articulating the company mission as a question, it tells the outside world, “This is what we’re striving for —we know we’re not there yet, but we’re on the journey.” It acknowledges room for possibility, change, and adaptability. “I’d rather have mission statements that start by asking How might we?” says the consultant Min Basadur. “You don’t want the mission statement to make it sound like you’re already there. If we say, ‘How might we be recognized as the best car-parts manufacturer?’ it says, ‘We’re always trying and we’re willing to open our minds to new ways of accomplishing this.’”
Perhaps most important, a mission question invites participation and collaboration. Tim Brown, the chief executive at IDEO, 37 points out that questions, by their very nature, challenge people and invite them to engage with an idea or an issue— and could therefore do likewise in engaging employees with a company mission. Indeed, thinking of a company mission as a shared endeavor —an ongoing attempt to answer a big, bold question through collaborative inquiry— seems vastly preferable to having to live up to a dictum handed down from on high. As to how it reflects on the company (which is what a lot of mission statements are about), which seems more impressive: a company that is striving to answer an ambitious question— or one that claims to have figured everything out and distilled it down to an official “statement”?
Whether or not the mission statement is phrased as a question, it should be subject to constant questioning:
Does it still make sense today?
Are we, as a company, still living up to it (if we ever did)?
Is the mission growing and pulling us forward?
And lastly, Are we all on this mission together?
The first three of these are somewhat self-explanatory, but companies may need to think more about the last question . Mission statements are usually created by upper management (many of them read as if they were cobbled together by an executive committee). But does a mission mean anything if the people throughout the company don’t feel invested in it? One way to help people feel more engaged with a company mission is to give them a role in shaping it or refreshing an existing one.
Keith Yamashita observes that some companies involve many people in the crafting of the mission, while others leave it to the leadership. “To me, there’s no right or wrong way,” he says. But he does note that being involved in the mission creation—“ doing the introspection— gets people to more firmly and more deeply believe in what they are doing.”
Yamashita points to the approach used by Starbucks in modernizing its mission a few years back. CEO Howard Schultz worked with his top leaders to rewrite every word of the mission. That team then convened the top three hundred leaders of the company to get them to commit to it; they in turn went to more than twelve thousand store managers, who spent four days in New Orleans committing to the mission. “This is a great example of mission-setting, starting with a few key leaders and ultimately rallying an entire workforce,” Yamashita says.
A different approach by IBM under 39 then-CEO Sam Palmisano sought even more direct input up front. Palmisano “hosted a worldwide online jam session— using technology to elicit the ideas, thinking, and stories from IBMers about what they most valued,” Yamashita recalls. More than eighty thousand employees participated— and together, they wrote the company’s values, which remain in place under current CEO Ginni Rometty.
Ron Shaich says that at Panera ideas about how to live up to the mission can come from anywhere. For example, the Panera Cares idea originated during a dinner conversation among Shaich and a group of franchisees— one of whom asked how the company might expand upon its efforts to serve the community. That got Shaich thinking about ways to elevate the company’s existing bread-donation program to a higher level.
Whether mission questions come from throughout the ranks or are posed by leaders themselves, the point is to keep asking, What are we doing? Why are we doing it? How might we do it better? As Shaich says, “Figuring out what you want to accomplish is a continual search— and questions are the means to the search.”
Note from Bob: What are you doing or might you do to keep your Mission Statement pulling you/your organization forward?
Note from Bob: I highly recommend Warren’s new book is A More Beautiful Question
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