What's my team's mission?
What’s my team’s purpose? Why do we do what we do?
Over these last 2 weeks of January I'm switching to a new team here in Barcelona. Still the same account, about the same responsibilities, but a lot of change for both myself and the team I was about to join.
And we found ourselves asking those 3 questions. A lot is about to change and there's an expressive amount of uncertainty. What's this new team's supposed to do? What differentiates this new group of people from other teams working for the same client?
This is how we found out.
Why coming up with a mission statement?
It's a fair question. Why spending time on this? Why putting 8 people in a room for almost 2 hours, instead of delivering features?
When everyone in the team agrees with a mission statement, it gives everyone not only a sense of purpose, but also a direction to follow. Instead of just getting on with life, it enables people in the team to ask "why should we work on this feature given it has nothing to do with our purpose?".
It also helps realising what are the differences among different teams and enables people to question theirselves in setting priorities, allocating efforts and work on their goals. For instance, it enables the team to ask "doesn't this belong in Team X's backlog? after all they're the ones responsible for this part of the business".
What should a mission statement convey?
In short, a mission statement should be an answer to "why do we do what we do?". Tesla's mission statement is fantastic in this topic, it says "Accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy". They do their thing because they want the world to use sustainable energy, and they want it to happen now. Short, concise, straight to the point, brilliant.
But who are we trying to help? Who is going to benefit from our work? Who is going to wake up one day and say "thank you Team X for delivering this"? It might not be necessary to clearly state that. Going back to Tesla's statement, when one reads “Accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”, it goes without saying the underlying who are you and me and Mother Nature and everyone else, as we're part of the world.
The third concept a mission statement should convey is the value we're adding. Yes, we can simply wait for the paycheck and do whatever is thrown in our way. But is that what we really want? Is that why we wake up in the morning? It's fine if we disagree, but I like to think my work is actually adding some value to client that's helping me pay my bills. Look at Airbnb's mission statement: "Belong anywhere". Can it get better than that? Going anywhere in the world and feel like home, no matter where you go?
The last point is how our team plans to do that. This one can lead to confusion, as one might feel tempted to get too deep in detail. Let's look at Ben & Jerry's mission for a moment: "Our aim is to make the best possible ice cream, in the nicest possible way". It says how ("nicely") but doesn't get too deep into it. Are they going to use machines that give the milk a massage while going through the pipes? Why have they left out the specifics?
Traits of a mission statement
A mission statement should be:
- Connected with business
Let's go through them one by one.
You want your mission statement to be something you talk over lunch or by the water cooler. You want it to be memorable. You want to be proud of it. You want people to remember it and wish their team had had the same idea.
A mission statement should be something that inspires people to make their absolute best to deliver a product, not just a copied & pasted phrase from somewhere else.
This might be counter intuitive, but being realistic is as important as being inspirational.
Having a mission statement that is absolutely inspiring but impossible to achieve not only demotivates the team but also becomes a motive of mockery in the office, which brings motivation further down.
A team's mission cannot be just a dream, it has to be something that can be done on day-to-day work. It needs to touch what the team delivers, otherwise reality will kick in and team members will feel disconnected from their mission.
Think of a soldier with a mission. Their assignment says "go in there and do something". Go in there where? Do what? What if I end up doing what I'm not supposed to? That soldier could seriously hurt someone or herself in the process of figuring out the answers to all those question while performing their duty.
It's the same with a team. If they're not clear on their purpose, things could go south and the client might not be so happy about that.
As said before, a team's mission should make one feel proud of theirselves. Is supposed to be something you talk about while you wait for the elevator. It shouldn't take a whole ride through 8 floors with stops in between for you to finish your team's mission. If you manage to lose your colleague's attention before even getting into the elevator, it might be worth making it shorter.
(and that's probably why Ben & Jerry's mission skips details about how they're going to produce their ice cream in the nicest possible way)
Connected with business goals
It's very tempting to just state that a team's mission is to support products A, B & C. But what are those products used for? How do they generate money? How do they impact the business? That's the true value of a team, to bring positive impact to the users of those products, to bring profit to the organisation you're trying to help. Don't get too hung up on what's under your umbrella, focus on what's above the umbrella and why it's even part of the picture.
Enough theory, let's get to action
So, to uncover our team's mission, we took 5 steps:
One: split in pairs and come up with rough statements
We don't want to go wild and brainstorm a million statements. We want to go smaller, make the best out of our time and focus on the best possible statements from the beginning. And two heads think better than one, so, let's work in pairs.
Each pair is supposed to come up with one statement (having more is fine, let people unleash their creativity; but I suggest keeping it restrained to at most 3 per pair, otherwise going you'll end up with a million statements to go through and a lot of time will be wasted).
They don't need to be perfect, just not yet. It's ok if they're not inspirational enough, or not short enough, they'll be improved. The most important thing is to come up with ideas for now.
We've set a 10 minutes timebox as to allow everyone to have time to discuss their opinions and put it on paper. Once the time's up, every pair gets to present their statement(s).
Two: the favourite parts
Now we begin to refine the statements. We asked everyone on the team to grab a Sharpy and underline their favourite parts of each statement.
Maybe someone's got a really inspirational idea, but that turned out the be too long. Or someone else has thought of something that's a perfect fit to the business goals, but doesn't sound so actionable at first.
The goal here is to let the best of each idea pop up.
Three: let's work on those great ideas
The previous step laid out great ideas, like thinking of missions statements that talk of highways or garages for a client in automotive industry. Or using a library as a metaphor for a search engine that organises information.
Now how do put those ideas together and make them more inspirational, more realistic, more actionable, clearer, etc?
So we set another 10 minutes timebox and asked people to either work on their previously generated statements and improve them, or come up with something new. Now we limited pairs to only one idea, that would be reviewed and refine once again.
Four: exercise feedback
At ThoughtWorks (my employer back then), feedback is a very important part of people's daily routine. We give each other constructive feedback all the time, and we decided to do the same here.
We went through the new ideas people came up with and asked each other: What do we like about this statement? What do you find super cool about it? And what could be even better? What did we miss here? Is it inspirational enough? Is it short enough? Does it connect with the business?
The idea was to, once again, get the best out of those refined ideas, identify repeated words, ideas that were very strong for every pair, extract underlying similarities for the last step.
Five: collectively come up with the team's mission
Once we spotted words that would often pop up in different pairs, inspirational ideas, actionable missions, coming up with the final statement was a breeze.
All it took was connecting those words in a phrase that made sense, conveyed the why, the who, the value & the how and voilà! Since we focused on the traits of a mission statement from the beginning, all we had to do was a little bit of wordsmithery and everything fell into place.
But wait! What was the mission statement you came up with?
You'll have to pay a visit to our office in Barcelona and have a look at it yourself ;)