This post is part of a four-part set that details just one possible (and evolving) method to develop a useful mission statement.
My recommended mission statement discovery process
First, it’s very important that you determine if you willing to work in the intersection of this diagram. Mission statements are for people who want to serve. If being in that intersection feels too restrictive then you do not need a mission.
Here’s an overview of the process.
- Brainstorm words that you think describe what your project’s mission might be.
- Brainstorm words that describe the feelings you want to give people.
- Let it sit a few days. Revisit. Repeat. Spend at least an hour each time.
- Reflect on the set of words to determine which two words describe everything that is in your mission and nothing that isn’t.
Brainstorm Description Words
In a special meeting, preferably with people who know you, write down all the descriptive words that resonate as possible mission words. Phrases are OK but it’s better if you can get them down to single words.
These could be what you do, why you do them, what you hope to accomplish, who you are doing it for, really anything. Just find the words that make you react with “Yeah! That’s important to my mission.”
Use Google’s dictionary or thesaurus.com to better identify the *exact* word you need. For example “ridiculous” is different from “silly” which is different from “ludicrous”. When you find a word that resonates, add it to the list but don’t just put down all the synonyms. Be selective.
Sometimes you’ll come up with a phrase that you just can’t figure out how to get down to a single word, even when you use the thesaurus. For example, “human interaction” or “light and sound”. If you get stuck like that just write the phrase down. Don’t abandon the idea just because you don’t know the word for it. Just be sure that the phrase contains a singular concept and not just two things you want, such as “High tech storytelling” that should be separated into two separate words.
Brainstorm Feeling Words
It’s About The Feelings
Everything we do is for the feelings we get from doing those things. People don’t ride a rollercoaster for the rollercoaster – they ride it for the feeling it gives them. People don’t visit museums for the art. People don’t buy clothes to have clothes. People don’t vacation in Paris to be in Paris.
Museums, clothes, and vacations are all just a means to an end. The end they seek is the feeling(s) they get. This is a critical point to understand when finding your mission.
People to go museums for different reasons: to feel inspired, or knowledgeable, or high-brow, or special. Or maybe something else. But definitely to feel something.
People buy clothes for different reasons: to feel attractive or loved or powerful or rich or special or warm or cool. They buy it to feel.
If your project doesn’t deliver feelings nobody is going to want to have anything to do with it. Not even you. You might think it’s about the software you are writing, or the houses you are building, or the cupcakes you are making. It’s not. They are just the method that you deliver the feelings.
Find The Feelings
Here’s some ideas to help you identify the feeling words.
Think about the customer you are serving. Imagine the reaction you want from them when they experience your project1.
They might come seeking cupcakes, or art, or a rollercoaster, or an app, or a fancy dress. But that’s not really what they are seeking. That’s just how they will get the feeling they are seeking.
Assuming this is your ideal customer, ask yourself:
- What feeling(s) are they seeking that brings them to my offerings?
- What feeling(s) do they get when interacting with my offerings?
- What feeling(s) do they want to feel after interacting with my offering(s)?
- How do I want them to feel?
Write down all the feeling words. Make sure they are feeling words. They will likely be emotional feelings, but they could also be physical or spiritual feelings.
If you’re having trouble, consider these common ones: safety, accepted, loved, belonging, connected, prestige. Also consider things like happiness, a sense of engagement/flow, sense of meaning or usefulness, sense of accomplishment or power.
Use a thesaurus as you did when made your descriptive words list. Try to find the exact word(s). Be selective.
The Fears and Passion Angle
Still having trouble? Here’s an opposite approach for the brave-hearted who are embarking on a mission that is personal (spoiler: all the best missions are personal). I believe that your passions are your fears turned inside-out.
Think about what you are most afraid of in your life and the feeling it would give you if that thing were to happen. Then ask yourself: “what’s the opposite feeling of that feeling? If I turned that dreaded feeling inside out, what feeling would I find?” Write that down.
Separate “Tool” Words From “Value” words from “Purpose” Words
Now we take the list of words and try to put them into buckets. The three buckets are mission, values, and tools.
- Values words are words that guide HOW you behave when you carry out your mission.
- Tool words are words that guide WHAT you do to carry out your mission.
- Purpose words are words are rooted in WHY you carry out your mission.
- Beneficiary words are words that describe WHO you are serving with your mission.
An example helps explain the distinctions:
Suppose I am building a theme park and I want a clearer mission. My word list includes: rides, family-friendly, fun, thrill-seekers. Which list does each go on?
This is where reflection is key.
Theme Park #1
When I think the word “fun” is that a HOW, WHAT, or WHY? Maybe for me it’s a clear WHY: The whole reason for this park is to create fun. I put it on the purpose list.
What about “rides”? Well rides are awesome but it’s not my reason for being. It’s more of the tool of what I do to create the fun. “rides” is a WHAT and I put it on the tool list.
What about “family-friendly”? I want we’ll want to accommodate families, but the heart of the park just doesn’t feel like it’s about family-friendly. This one is about the rides. So it’s not a WHY. It seems more of a HOW. We will be friendly to families because we think that is important. It’s a value.
“Thrill-seekers” is the WHO. We can put that on the beneficiary list.
Ok, so that’s one way to look at these words. Now suppose I was another person with a different viewpoint and the same three words, fun, rides, and family-friendly.
Theme Park #2
Maybe I’m looking at out the world thinking that too many families’ shared time together is in front of the TV. I want to give them an amusement park that brings them together around experiences.
Now, instead of “family-friendly” being a value, it is more core to the reason the park will exist. It is a WHY word and it goes on the purpose list.
Next I consider the word “fun”. Fun is no longer the WHY. Fun has been “downgraded” in this case to the HOW.
As for “rides”, it remains a WHAT and is on the Tool list.
Looking at “thrill-seekers” we realize that while they might like the park, it’s not the core of who we serve. We decide to move it off the lists and add the word “families” to the WHO list.
Another Example: The Missions of Target and Costco
The three words I picked in the theme park example are, admittedly, pretty easy to categorize. Things will not always be so clear cut.
Is “low prices” a value or a purpose word?
Costco has the phrase “low prices” in their mission statement and you see it when you go to their basic, decor-less clubs. You feel “low prices” the moment you walk in the door, when you get their flyers, when you see their plain signage.
Compare that to Target where their mission is “To help all families discover the joy of everyday life”. You can feel the “joy of everyday life” in their ads, the way they lay out the store and in the products they offer.
I’m sure Target’s corporate buyers also care a lot about low prices, but it’s not WHY they exist.
I’m sure Costco’s corporate buyers also care a lot about “the joy of everyday life” but it’s not WHY they exist.
On many of your words you will need to do a gut check / soul search and see whether it is a purpose, value, or tool word. If you can’t figure it out, just make your best guess and we’ll figure it out later.
Why So Many Lists?
Trying to sort the words into different lists now will make things easier in the next step, which is creating a great mission statement in the form “We help (this group) do (this action) by providing (this solution).”
The group is the WHO. The action is the WHY. The solution is the WHAT.
(What about the “HOW” words? The HOW words are your values. While they are not always stated in the mission, they provide a set of ethical guardrails for your project.)
The lists are not set in stone. Words can be added, removed, and shifted as we reflect on them more.
But even these draft lists can begin to illuminate things like the difference between WHY we are doing something and HOW we are doing it. One person’s HOW is another person’s WHY. Instead of just collecting a messy pile of words, by putting them on lists we’re already giving form to the mission.
Recap: Tools vs Values vs Missions
- Purpose words. These are WHY your project exists. If someone said “remove that” you would have the immediate impulse to look them in the eye and say , “You just don’t get it, do you?”
- Tool words: These are WHAT you use some or most of the time to accomplish your mission but it’s not your reason for being. These words exemplify the the service/feelings you are providing.
- Value words: These are HOW you behave while carrying out the mission. These are words that almost feel like purpose words but not quite. They’re important to you and you won’t do business without them but they are not your projects reason for existing.
- Beneficiary words. These are the WHO you are serving.
What’s Next: Narrowing Down The Words
In the next post, I’ll describe how to take your lists words and get it down to a few prime candidates.