The Dreadful Mission Statement

One of the toughest business problems start-ups have is agreeing to a common goal. In corporate circles we often summarize this exercise as "creating a mission statement". The exercise is meant to provide guidance for employees to empower them to make better decisions for the company.

Don't Let the Wrong Event Sour You on the Mission

The intent is good, but the "mission event" is often stimulated by the loss of a key employee, lack of product focus or a general dissatisfaction with the company. In the end, it's a reaction to something the business should have been doing all along. Most of us have encountered dealing with a corporate mission that doesn't resonate with anyone in the company. And confusion and disenchantment are usually the end result. Remember, your goal is to empower employees to do kick-butt work.

So is a Mission Statement Bad?

No, definitely not. It's critical for success. But it's got to gel with the people in your company before it will ever help you broadcast the right message to customers. Big, long-winded statements that project self-importance or imply market dominance rarely help a company achieve their goals. Left undefined, mission statements can create more chaos than guidance.

Mission statements have to be achievable. They also have to be actionable and embraced by the company culture. Which gets us to our next item: what the heck does "mission statement" mean?

What a Mission Statement Really Is

At some point in your professional life you've probably come across a vision statement, purpose statement, mission statement, mantra or positioning statement. If you're like us, these terms seem a little disconnected from day-to-day business. Most mission statements we've read are not good. Heck, when you see poor results of companies like GM, you wonder what the point of their mission statement is:

G.M. is a multinational corporation engaged in socially responsible operations, worldwide. It is dedicated to provide products and services of such quality that our customers will receive superior value while our employees and business partners will share in our success and our stock-holders will receive a sustained superior return on their investment.

Doesn't GM make cars?!

Let's Make This Real

Because these business "statements" seem vague, we thought it would be helpful to break down the concepts into easy to understand definitions. If employees can't understand the concepts, what's the point of the statements?

Term Definition Tips
A short 3-4 word description of what your company does. It's a rally cry.
Be authentic, concise and make it easy to understand.  It should be memorable.
Purpose Statement
A broad and inspirational statement that gives the business a sense of direction.  This may be unachievable, but it's a motivation for employees. It doesn't have to be flashy.
A purpose statement is often confused with a mission statement.  Purpose is farther reaching and not guided by an end goal.
Mission Statement A single sentence that is tangible and has a specific goal. It's got to present a clear finish line that keeps people focused on a result.  It should verge on unreasonable, but it's got to connect with employees.
Be grounded. A mission should have an end goal that the company can achieve.  When the goal has been met, refocus and set the bar higher!
Vision Statement The tangible result of your mission.  A compelling and detailed visualization of your successful outcome that could as simple as one descriptive paragraph.
If the result seems unreasonable for your company, go back and redefine your mission!
Positioning Statement A focused statement that identifies how your product or service is different from your competitors. This includes your customers, product category and compelling reason to buy from the business.
This should be extremely accurate.  Your positioning can be forward looking, but your product or service must meet the spirit of the statement.
Proof Points (Differentiators)
Simple one line statements that prove your positioning statement. A solid business will only need 3 or 4 proof points.
These have to be accurate and real- customers will lose trust in the business if they are inaccurate.
Validation Points
Clear functions, features, services or processes that validate a proof point.  These are grounded in the operations and should map directly to the proof points.
Validation points need to be grounded in reality.  If your short on validation to support a proof point, then the proof point probably is not accurate.
The results of clearly articulated validation points.  A customer should be able to understand how a function, feature, service or process benefits them.
Benefits should be measurable and help close the circle of the company mission.  If your business can track the success of each benefit, then it is going to be in a great position to build on its original mission.

Using ZURB as an Example

To make the exercise more valuable we took a stab at outlining ZURB's mission. Below you'll find a concrete example of how ZURB looks at it's business. You could call this a draft, but it should be a working document that is updated as our business grows or changes.

Design for People
Purpose Statement
Help People Design for People
Mission Statement Build a design business that teaches people how to create better products & services through our consulting, products, education, books, training and events.
Vision Statement Share in the success of other people that have experienced working and interacting with ZURB.  Appreciate how innovative and people centric design improves the financial success of businesses and increases the enjoyment for their customers.
Positioning Statement World's best interaction design & strategy company for start-ups & teams that want to get stuff done.
Proof Points
  1. Most experienced
  2. Effective methods & flexible process
  3. Most accessible
  4. Strong culture
Validation Points
  1. Most experienced
  • 75 start-ups
  • 12th year of business
  • $600,000,000 in market capitalization
  • Effective methods & flexible process
    • Fast projects
    • Work within your existing structures
    • Goal driven
    • Explore possibilities
    • Involve your whole team
    • Qualitative and quantitative evaluation
  • Most accessible
    • Consulting
    • Education
    • Products
    • Events
  • Strong culture
    1. T-shaped employees
    2. Collaboration
    3. Share in victory
    1. Most experienced
    • Learn to find answers faster from our vast experience
    • Less time and money, especially from redoing work
    • We help you win
  • Effective methods & flexible process
    • Minimize disruption to workflow
    • Amazing possibilities
    • Lasting process that you own
    • Wows & Wins
  • Most accessible
    • Get help when you need it
    • Control how you get the help
    • Solutions that fit different budgets
  • Strong culture
    1. You get more than an answer, you get a team to help you out
    2. Things happen faster
    3. Easy to build off momentum
    4. It's funner!

    Creating a Metaphor

    Lists and definitions are helpful, but they rarely create excitement about ideas. We decided to take these ideas a step further by creating a visual brainstorm of the concepts. After some exploration we used the metaphor of a soapbox car to help us tell a story through each statement. When you map out the terms, you'll see how each one plays off the other.

    A close-up shot of the mission statement brainstorm. In this detail we explore the concept of a soapbox metaphor.

    After a few passes of telling the story to guys in the office, the flow seemed to resonate even more. Here is a capture of the entire board.

    A whiteboard capture of a mission statement brainstorm session. Click on the image to see a full size image.

    A Winning Mission Statement

    The process of creating a mission statement can seem daunting and a bit prickly if you focus on everything except just getting the ideas down. Getting your team to buy into the mission statement requires some simple language, understanding of the tool, a grounded view of your business and a little bit of politicking. But we bet the need for extensive persuasion disappears when you get people excited about the real company goal. People will rally!

    chief instigator bryan z

    Bryan Zmijewski

    Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998

    Our fearless leader has been driving progressive design at ZURB since 1998. That makes him quite the instigator around the offices, consistently challenging both the team and our customers to strive to always do better and better.
    Learn more →

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    It has 7 comments.

    John Marshall (ZURB) says

    It's essential to avoid platitudes. If you can take a phrase and add 'well, duh!' to the end, it's a platitude.

    Bryan (ZURB) says

    Hmmm, I'm wondering if your statement is geared towards the lame mission statement, or our advice on mission statements? :)

    Jonathan Hung (ZURB) says

    Turning the magnifying glass on yourselves and analyzing your own mission statement serves as a case-study and makes visible the methodology that differentiates ZURB from the crowd. Thank you guys for making your design and business strategies transparent and accessible; I continue to learn a lot from you all. Great article!

    Jeremy (ZURB) says

    This post has been fun to see develop over the past couple of weeks and heck, over the past several years! I love what we do and think this exercise captured it well and helped crystallize my thoughts about it.

    Sometimes all it takes is dedicating some time to sit and write things down. Otherwise important ideas are trapped--not quite fully formed--in your head.

    Bryan (ZURB) says

    Jonathan- thanks for chiming in.

    Jeremy- Agreed. In fact making this part of a public forum creates an internal pressure to get the ideas committed to...

    Carly13 (ZURB) says

    It's true, creating the mission statement is a tough one, but oh so important. It's always important to think what you want people to know about your company upfront. If you could sum up where you want to take your company in a single sentence, that should become your mission statement.
    Carly S.