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Developing a Mission Statement in Three Acts

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There are many steps in the process to construct a meaningful mission statement. I teach a one-and-a-half-hour seminar in how to run the process. It’s exciting to participate in the execution, but it makes for a boring read. There are, however, three key questions which must be answered before the process can go forward and here is where I think the excitement begins.


Act One

The most general question to ask yourselves is, “What business are you in?” or “What do you do?” It’s not that easy a question to answer accurately and honestly. Less than 25 years ago, Kodak was one of the world’s most successful companies. They owned 70% of the world’s photographic film market. No one could touch them. They were known for quality products and flawless quality control. They made some cameras as well, but if you asked anyone what business Kodak was in, they would tell you, “the film business.”

In fact, that’s probably what the executives at Kodak thought as well. Kodak began to struggle financially in the late 1990s, as a result of the decline in sales of photographic film and the imminent rise of digital photography. By 2012, Kodak filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, having lost the opportunity to be the first to move into digital imaging.  Apple recognized that they were in the imaging business as soon as they put a digital camera on the IPhone. The truth is, had Kodak executives understood that they were not in the film business, but that they were in the imaging business, they might have transitioned sooner and still been the masters of their industry.

So, before you answer that simple question at the beginning of this section, think very hard about what product or service you provide to your customers. Ask yourself, “what motivates my customers to do business with my company?” Are you really in the business of delivering a product, or are you in the business of delivering a service?

What do you think makes Amazon such an immensely successful company? After all, they are just delivering products to your home or office, which you could buy at any number of other stores or websites. What Amazon is really doing is delivering a positive customer experience. They have found a way to make shopping “easier” in a way that other companies have found difficult to do, and that is key to their success.


Act Two

Whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your unique selling proposition, how you plan to distinguish yourself from your competition, or even from the accepted norms of your industry, is critical to building your mission and your culture. Can you think of one company who recently took over an entire service industry, upending what had been the status quo for almost a century, by changing how the service is delivered?

Uber provides transportation for hire for individuals without their own means of transport, on an ad hoc basis, in cities all over the world. Vehicles for hire have been around since the turn of the twentieth century, largely unchanged. Taxicabs provide the same service as Uber - short distance transportation for hire for individuals without their own means of transport, on an ad hoc basis, in cities all over the world. Yet Uber has nearly overtaken taxis in the US with the number of rides and share of the market. In 2015, Uber completed its 1 billionth ride, and in 2017 approximately 40 million riders a month were using their service, worldwide. Ten years ago, Uber did not even exist!

Rather than stand in the street and “hail” a taxi, Uber customers use a mobile app on their smartphone to request a ride from an Uber driver. Riders are quoted the fare that they will pay before requesting the ride. The Uber driver picks the rider up based on the location given by their smartphone (no mistaken addresses) and the rider gets to see exactly what kind of car the Uber is driving, accompanied by a picture of the driver. At the end of the ride, payment is made based on the rider's pre-selected preferences, which could be a credit card on file, Google Pay, Apple Pay or cash.

The difference is not what they do, but how they do it. Uber delivers the same product (what) they just deliver it differently (how) and that can mean the difference between running a taxi service and building a company from zero to $6.5 billion in less than a decade.


Act Three

The most important insight into creating a vision for your company, as embodied in a mission statement, is to define why you do what you do. Everyone knows what they do – what service or product they provide. Most companies know how they do it. But very few companies know why they do what they do. By this, I mean: What is your purpose? What is your cause? What is your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning and why should anyone care?

Simon Sinek is a leadership professional with several bestselling books to his credit. He gave a TED Talk in 2010 which has become the third most watched TED Talk in history, with over 28 million views. He asks the question, “How do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions?” For example: Why is Apple the most successful computer maker in the world today? He points out that, “Year after year, after year, they're more innovative than all their competition - and yet, they're just a computer company. They're just like everyone else. They have the same access to the same talent, the same agencies, the same consultants, the same media.” Then why are they so different?

Simon goes on to say, “If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this: We make great computers. They're beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?" "Meh."

That’s how most sales and marketing departments craft their message. They will tell you what they do and how they do it or how they are different or better (features and benefits), and then they expect some sort of behavior or result from the customer, like an order or a contract. This has been the way most sales and marketing organizations have operated for a very long time.

Here's how Apple actually communicates. "Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?"

Totally different, right? You're ready to buy a computer from Apple. The reason is that Apple explains why they are in business first. Explaining why is like tilling the soil before planting the “seed” of an idea. Once you’ve explained why, the listener’s mind is open to the ideas which follow and allows them to take root.

William Sciambi