How a startup can find its “True North”
I’ve been a student of strategy for my entire career. It was ingrained in my way of thinking in graduate school, and in my five years of consultant work post-graduation. In operating and staff roles afterward, I had the chance to practice the craft of strategy over and over again.
With time and the help of experts and colleagues from many organizations, I developed a strategy playbook. It’s one that I think has a near-universal applicability, no matter the type of organization. Implemented and practiced with discipline, it achieves sustained focus and alignment in ways that are uniquely powerful.
One caveat before proceeding: to borrow and reframe an aphorism from George Box, “All strategy playbooks are wrong, some strategy playbooks are useful.” In a series of articles that will follow, I’ll go through the major elements of my playbook in sequential steps, hoping that these can be of some utility to the reader.
In my last article, I talked about startup strategy and how hard it can be to plan over nearly any time frame other than the very short term. I proposed the metaphor of a compass rather than a road map; an orientation that can be continually referenced to aim in the right direction when conditions on the ground are constantly changing.
For a compass to be useful to any organization, you have to choose some point on the compass dial toward which you are constantly aiming. Nice metaphor, but in practical terms, what does that actually mean?
It means a clear mission (some companies prefer the term “vision” to describe this step, I don’t particularly care which word you use, as long as the output meets the tests I describe). A mission is a succinct statement of purpose. It makes clear why the organization exists in the first place.
All organizations have missions, even if they are unstated. Why is any organization created if not to work toward some meaningful purpose? If you accept this as a given (I can think of literally no exceptions) then a primary job of leadership is to state that mission in terms that can be clearly understood by any of the organization’s stakeholders.
I cannot overstate how important it is for leadership to take the time to get this right. Don’t do some short exercise to come up with a placeholder to beautifully frame and hang on the wall of your office. An organization’s mission is its abiding purpose. It is the reference point against which everything the organization works to achieve should be judged. I’ll say it again—invest the time to get this right.
So, what makes for a good statement of mission? From my experience, it needs to meet the following tests:
It clearly communicates purpose. Missions answer the why question. By doing so, they create meaning. They attract people that resonate with that meaning, and that want to be part of achieving it. The mission helps make work worth much more than just the paycheck.
It should be narrowly applicable. Test the mission to see if it would fit with other companies, including some that would be very different. A good mission will be a clear misfit for almost any other organization.
It doesn’t have a finish line. Great missions are never accomplished. They are described in terms that communicate a never-ending quest; an ongoing, purposeful, meaning-filled journey.
It proscribes boundaries. Well-crafted missions create fences beyond which the organization shouldn’t go. The exceptions to this are and should be exceedingly rare.
With those criteria in mind, let’s look at some examples.
To bring innovation and inspiration to every athlete in the world*
*if you have a body, you are an athlete
Purpose? Absolutely. Narrowly applicable? Yes. Nike is the only brand in sport that is so obsessively focused on innovation (starting with the waffle sole), and so frequently centers its communications on amazing athletic feats. No finish line? Yes. The task of doing this will never be done. Boundaries? Absolutely yes. Stay focused on products for athletes. Do so through a particular formula. I can tell you from having worked at Nike, this mission is an obsession.
We carry on the healing ministry of Jesus Christ by promoting personal and community health, relieving pain and suffering, and treating each person in a loving and caring way.
Purpose? No question. Narrowly applicable? Yes. No organization other than a religiously sponsored healthcare provider (and a Christian one at that) would adopt this. No finish line? Clearly. There will always be pain and suffering, always a need for love in that suffering, always a need for healing. Boundaries? Yes. PeaceHealth stays in healthcare. It embraces Christian values (the organization was founded by an order of Catholic nuns). Any service or product outside of those boundaries is off-limits.
As with Nike, I worked at PeaceHealth. This mission permeates everything, even though it causes controversy at times given its overt connection to a religious tradition. I admire their willingness to own their heritage and mission regardless of frequent and strong external pressure to step outside of it.
We’re on a mission to be the world’s best cloud communications platform for service providers.
Purpose? Check. Narrowly applicable? The most proscribing and defining of the examples I’ve provided. No finish line? Most likely, yes. They might be the best at present, or they might become the best in the future. What then? The task of remaining the best as competition improves and innovation disrupts should keep Alianza on its toes forever. Boundaries? Very clear boundaries. Alianza’s business is crystal clear. There is no ambiguity about what they provide or who they serve.
These are great examples of companies that got the mission right and use it to run the business in explicit and powerful ways. Conversely, we can probably all think of organizations where the mission is either poorly defined or doesn’t seem to exist at all. The best example of this for me would be General Electric (GE).
In the very recent past, GE had business units that made light bulbs, locomotives, aircraft engines, and home appliances, all accompanied by a nice little (really big, actually) financial services unit. When I was in business school, GE was a case study of a well-run company. Jack Welch was basically the Elon Musk of his time, seen as a uniquely capable leader that could successfully run a wide range of unrelated businesses. GE minted money, and it was frequently the highest performing stock in the Dow.
So what might GE’s mission be? Other than to make money, I challenge anyone to come up with a coherent description of their purpose. After two decades of severe underperformance, GE is now a shell of its former self. I wouldn’t presume to suggest that a lack of mission is what drove its decline. But I would strongly suggest that it played a material part. Even the GE of today couldn’t create a clear mission that meets the tests I laid out above. Until it can, I think more change is yet to come.
At the end of the day, mission matters. In fact, I think it matters more than almost any other foundational element of a business. Lacking a clear sense of mission, companies can wander around trying all sorts of things while communicating no clear purpose to their employees, customers, or business partners.
No matter the stage of the company you’re in, no matter the type of organization it is (business, government, non-profit, school, etc.), you owe it to yourself and everyone you seek to serve and support to have a clear mission. Invest the effort to conceptualize it, then write it down. Revise, get feedback, and revise again. You want this to be damn near perfect, for if you want your company to “live long and prosper,” it will need to live much longer than you do.