March 25, 2018

Adjusting your mission focus

More on missions today. Let’s begin with a quote from architect Daniel Burnham:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Having a mission is a very effective way to concentrate your efforts. It gives you an objective, which will suggest a range of strategies, which in turn will help you filter good tactics from bad.

If you have a pretty good idea of what your mission is, it’s helpful to focus your mission statement so that it’s as clear, as powerful, and as resonant as you can make it.

In my mind, focusing your mission involves turning two dials: One dial controls the size of your mission and the other dial controls the specificity of your mission.

Here’s an exercise for you... I’m going to show you seven mission statements. Read through one at a time, considering each one in turn. Imagine someone saying each out loud to you.

Pay careful attention to your physical and emotional reactions to each one. Does it resonate with you? Are you uninterested in it? Are you against it? Is it preposterous? Do you shrug your shoulders? Do you roll your eyes? Do you title your head? Do you scrunch your face? Do your eyebrows go up? Do you chuckle? 

Okay, ready? Deep breath... here we go:

Which (if any) could you get behind?

For me, the first mission statement (i.e., “convince engineers to use TDD”) is too limited. It’s not big enough to “stir my blood”, not big enough to convert me from a bystander to a supporter. It feels like something that doesn’t touch my world. It’s something for “other people” to worry about.

The last mission statement (i.e., “make people happier”) is too vague for me. Make people happier in what way? Through what means? It has no domain, no edges, no form. It makes me roll my eyes, and think “Okay buddy. Good luck with that.”

I think a good mission statement is both big and specific. In the examples above, 5 and 6 are the ones that resonate most with me. They seem real. Like things that I could get behind. They’re big enough to get me interested. They touch my world. They would make me ask, “Wow! How the heck do you plan to do that?”

The TED Talk trick

If you’re having a hard time working out your mission statement on your own, I have a trick for you:

Ask yourself, “What would my TED Talk be called?”

Popular TED Talk topics have a way being both big and specific. Take a look at the titles of the top 25 most viewed TED Talks, and craft one for yourself that you think would fit nicely into that list.