March 23, 2018

Why should I care about your mission?

For the past few days, we’ve been focusing on an email sent in by Mike Spangler who shared a story about breaking through his chronic writer’s block by discovering his mission.

Today, I’d like to explore the exact wording Mike used to articulate his mission and perhaps suggest some alternative wordings.

NOTE: I haven’t discussed this with Mike, so my suggestions may be way off base for him personally. What I hope to do here is demonstrate a process for refining a draft mission statement into something even more powerful.

Here’s what Mike wrote:

I realized my “mission” is to convince software engineers to use test driven development. In my mind it’s the most professional way to develop software.

As is, this is a pretty good mission statement. As Mike himself pointed out, it was more than enough to open the floodgates of his mind - as he put it, he went from writers block to “seeing blog post ideas everywhere.”

Furthermore, at least two people emailed to ask for the URL to Mike’s website so they could learn more about TDD. Positioning #FTW!

So yes... this version of the mission statement is a good start. The underlying sentiment resonates with me. However, I think the wording could be polished to make it more compelling.

The first thing that gave me pause was the word “convince” (e.g., Mike wants to convince software engineers to use TDD). It’s not impossible to change people’s minds, but there’s something sort of combative about using it in the actual mission statement.

Compare the “convince” version to something more aspirational like:

“My mission is make test driven development the default approach for building software.”

In this version, there’s no explicit “Mike vs software engineers” sentiment. Sure, even with this reworded vision, Mike would still have to do lots of convincing along the way to reaching his goal, but I think there’s something more warm an fuzzy about this phrasing.

But I think we can go deeper. I think there could be a more universally appealing version of this mission statement.

To find it, I’m going to open up a big ol’ can of “So What?”

I haven’t chatted with Mike about this, but here’s a hypothetical conversation between him and me:

Mike: “I’m on a mission to convince software engineers to use test driven development.”

Jonathan: “Why?”

Mike: “In my mind it’s the most professional way to develop software.”

Jonathan: “So what?”

Mike: “Well, devs who don’t use TDD are really just script kiddies.”

Jonathan: “So what?”

Mike: “Um... well... they’re playing with fire... software is complex and all sorts of things can go wrong. Things you’d never think to check for.”

Jonathan: “So what?”

Mike: “C’mon! Clients who don’t know any better are paying REAL MONEY for these ’shoot from the hip’ code cowboys to build BUGGY AND INSECURE SOFTWARE that can do REAL HARM to the client’s business! And worse, to the client’s customers!!! Every day it seems like there’s news of yet another data breach where the personal information of tens of thousands of customers is stolen by hackers! TDD helps ensure that production code is RELIABLE AND SAFE for the end user.”

Jonathan: “Now I’m starting to get it. So... you’re on a mission to make the digital world a safer place for the average person?”

Mike: “...”

Mike: “Yeah, I guess maybe I am.”

ASIDE: Again, this is all hypothetical. I have no idea why Mike wants software engineers to use TDD.

The beauty of the “So what?” approach is that if carried on long enough, it can trigger an emotional outburst. It is in this outburst that you are most likely to find a powerful, emotionally charged way to articulate the mission.

And then you’ll have a good answer to “Why should anyone else care about this mission?”

Embarking on a mission is a big undertaking. It’s a team sport. You’re going to need help in order to accomplish the goal. You need to give people a reason to pitch in.

Answers like “because TDD is better” or “because TDD is more professional” won’t be very compelling to folks who don’t already agree with Mike.

But pretty much anyone with a smartphone can get behind the idea of "making the digital world a safer place."