The philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the thing you have long taken for granted.” So let’s apply this to the corporate mission statement—something that is often taken for granted, ignored, occasionally ridiculed. What if we were to take the typical mission statement and hang a question mark on the end of it?
First, let’s consider why a company might want to do this. It’s assumed that a declarative “statement” makes a company seem confident, more sure of its mission, more determined. But mission statements tend to have a different effect. They often sound arrogant. They come across as not quite credible. They seem “corporate” and “official,” which also means they’re a bit stiff. Often they’re banal pronouncements (We save people money so they can live better.—WalMart) or debatable assertions (Yahoo! is the premier digital media company) that don’t offer much help in trying to gauge whether a company is actually living up to a larger goal or purpose.
And sometimes they sound as if they’re saying the mission has already been accomplished, and now the company is just in maintenance mode.
In these dynamic, uncertain times, it seems appropriate to take that static statement and transform it into a more open-ended, fluid mission question that can still be ambitious (replacing, for example, “We make the world a better place through robotics!” with “How might we make the world a better place through robotics?”).
By articulating the company mission as a question, it tells the outside world, “This is what we’re striving for—we know we’re not there yet, but we’re on the journey.” It acknowledges room for possibility, change, and adaptability. “I’d rather have mission statements that start by asking How Might We,” says the consultant Min Basadur. “You don’t want the mission statement to make it sound like you’re already there. If we say, ‘How might we be recognized as the best car parts manufacturer,’ it says, ‘We’re always trying and we’re willing to open our minds to new ways of accomplishing this.’”
Perhaps most importantly, a mission question invites participation and collaboration. Tim Brown, the chief executive at IDEO, points out that questions, by their very nature, challenge people and invite them to engage with an idea or an issue—and could therefore do likewise in terms engaging employees with a company mission. Indeed, thinking of a company mission as a shared endeavor—an ongoing attempt to answer a big, bold question through collaborative inquiry—seems vastly preferable to having to live up to a dictum handed down from on high.
In terms of how it reflects on the company (which, in the end, is what a lot of mission statements are about), let me ask you which seems more impressive: A company that is striving to answer an ambitious question—or one that claims to have figured everything out and distilled it down to an official “statement?”