On a mission to go digital

whats your missionMission statements have a mixed reputation. Some people believe strongly in having a clearly defined statement of the organisation’s purpose whilst others see mission statements as being worthless (and in some cases meaningless) – something that gets hung on the office wall, published on the company’s website and used in PR activity but which has little or no relevance to the organisation’s employees or other stakeholders.

And, to be fair to the doubters, they are often right; mission statements are often poorly written, full of management speak and fail to meet their primary objective: to provide a brief but unambiguous description of why the company exists, its reason for being or its primary purpose.

In my advisory work I help organisations that want to design new (digital) business models, create digital products and services, and develop digital customer experiences. In the short-term, product and service innovation can be achieved using a variety of techniques that generate a pipeline of ideas for enhancing the organisation’s existing offerings and creating new (digital) experiences. And, to a degree, business model innovation can be achieved in the same way.

However, in the longer-term – and to create a more sustainable digital business – a more holistic approach is needed. Ultimately this involves looking at the organisation’s vision, strategy, leadership, culture, governance, skills, processes and systems to ensure they are fit for digital.

As a first step on the journey to becoming a digital business I recommend that my clients start with their mission statement. In my view the organisation’s mission statement should set the overall direction and tone for the business. A well-crafted and relevant mission statement can be used to shape the transformation to a digital business. And it can also be used to guide and indeed prompt innovation in the organisation’s business model, products and services.

Becoming a digital business requires a new perspective on the organisation. It is about looking at the business from the customer’s viewpoint – an outside-in approach – and using this perspective to reinvent the entire business model to meet customer needs and expectations. An outside-in view of the organisation focuses on the outcomes or benefits that the business provides for the customer.

And the outside-in approach starts with the organisation’s mission statement. Traditionally mission statements have been written from the company’s perspective. But this inside-out approach is often not relevant to customers and it can also constrain the business and stifle innovation.

To illustrate this point consider the Allianz Insurance mission statement:

To be the outstanding competitor in our chosen markets by delivering:

  • products and services that our clients recommend
  • a great company to work for
  • the best combination of profit and growth.

As a mission statement it fails the primary requirement in that it does not say what the company actually does; it does not describe the company’s primary role or reason for being. And even though it contains the word customer the mission is about the company and what it wants. It is an inside-out mission statement.

Now consider the Google mission statement:

To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful

This leaves the reader in no doubt as to what Google’s core purpose or reason for being is. And it also captures the primary benefit or outcome for customers – making information accessible and useful. And when one considers the products and services that Google provides it is clear to see how they all fit with this mission statement. It is an outside-in mission statement.

Of the two mission statements, which:

  • Provides clear direction for the business and can be used to guide its vision, strategy and overall direction?
  • Keeps the organisation and its employees focused on what it does for its customers?
  • Provides the best starting point for business model or product innovation?
  • Is more likely to inspire its employees to be innovative?

In every case the answer is the Google mission statement. Another key feature is that whilst it is specific about why the company exists it does not constrain how the business achieves its mission or the types of products and services it can provide. Inside-out mission statements often refer to the industry in which the business operates or specific products or services it provides. As well as not being focused on customer needs, such mission statements (if they are genuinely used to guide the business) immediately place a constraint on what the business can do.

Consider this example from Travis Perkins:

To supply the highest quality building, construction and home improvement materials in the UK.

This is a classic inside-out mission statement that limits what the company does and the markets in which it operates. If this were rewritten as “supply products that help create, improve and maintain buildings” it would immediately open up new possibilities for innovation in the company’s business model, products and services. It could also be used to guide the development of digital offerings, which is something that the original almost excludes with its reference to materials.

Understandably mission statements have a poor reputation in organisations that have misunderstood or misused the concept. A poorly written inside-out mission statement can actually constrain a business when it comes to thinking about digital. On the other hand a meaningful mission statement that is based on the outside-in perspective can be used to guide the overall direction of the organisation and its digital transformation. And if you can create a mission statement as strong as Google’s then it can even be used as the catalyst for customer-focused digital innovation.

If your organisation wants to develop a new mission statement or transform its business for digital then please contact me or visit my website, axin.co.uk.

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