Do you need a Mission Statement? Or a Focusing Question?

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The Mission Statement

A generic mission statement.

Think of a big company. It’s a big, famous company you have absolutely heard of. Quite possibly you have even purchased products from this company.

They love their mission statement. It’s thoughtful, exacting, lofty, carefully worded, legally vetted, and a little too long.  It’s on their website. It’s the first or last slide of every internal presentation. It’s printed on the backs of employee badges and in vendor RFPs. It’s displayed on a huge poster, on an easel, in the lobby. 

And there’s a typo in it. 

Not an obvious typo. Not a laughable one. One that’s easy to miss. But it’s there, nevertheless. No one notices it because while the mission of the company is important to the people who work there, and to their customers, their mission statement is not remotely useful in communicating anything actionable to employees or customers. They dutifully copy and paste it everywhere that management has dictated it should appear. But it’s not the useful tool its authors intended. 

In a meeting, bringing up a mission statement is like inviting everyone to discuss a point of philosophy. Asking a focusing question is like snapping everyone to attention. 

The Focusing Question

The focusing question.

Most companies need a focusing question much more than they need a mission statement. Where a mission statement is lofty, idealistic, and full of complex ideas that only upper management will understand fully, a focusing question is concrete, short, actionable, and applies to everyone who works there, from the CEO to janitorial staff.

In a meeting, bringing up a mission statement is like inviting everyone to discuss a point of philosophy. Asking a focusing question is like snapping everyone to attention. 

The best way to describe the utility of a focusing question is a story I once heard about another big, famous company. This one makes appliances.

In the 1980’s the company hired an executive who had interesting ideas about increasing revenue through innovative financial instruments: leveraging the company’s assets, mergers and acquisitions, consumer lending, etc.  He was so passionate about it that other executives started to share his fever, and more and more of their time was spent on planning financial strategy and less and less on running an appliance factory.

At one enthusiastic presentation, the CEO listened to the executive explain a particularly complex scheme for moving money around, and then asked his focusing question: “What does this have to do with making washing machines?”

His question reminded the team of the core business they still needed to support and grow.

Focusing questions are more limiting than mission statements, but that’s absolutely the point. You can also change them as needed (but not too often, and never on a whim). Focusing questions can change as your business changes, and more importantly, as your customers change. But good ones still serve as a handy laser to recalibrate teams so that they continue to work effectively toward a common goal.

A mission statement delivers a lecture.
A focusing question invites collaboration.

Two men and a woman collaborating on a project

You might think that focusing questions suppress creative problem solving, but the opposite is true — they channel it in ways that can become exciting for team members, because the ideas generated from a focusing question are often more achievable. For example, it might be in your mission statement to “change the world by making high-quality plumbing supplies available to plumbers throughout the Mid-Atlantic States,” but changing the word is hard. Plus, it’s neither straightforward nor intuitive to imagine what the role of the shipping department might be in that effort.

If you had a focusing question, instead, you’d generate a lot more ideas. “How can we support our customer better, so that WaterEverywhere Plumbing Supply is the first and favorite choice of all our customers?”  Now the sales department can share that they get twice as many requests as they can accommodate for next-day delivery, the shipping department can say that they could handle more if their labels were printed differently, and IT can change the forms so that can happen.

Your focusing question might be, “How does this help us make applications that are more useful to more people?” Or “How does this product give busy parents more time?” or “What have we done this quarter to let our clients know we sell other types of insurance?”

Best of all, you don’t need a lot of time and effort to see the difference. Pick one and try it out at your next meeting. 

Do you have a focusing question? Have you tried one out? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. 

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