About 30 years ago my business partner and I were in the world headquarters of our startup -- the second bedroom of my small condo. I had just created a rift between us by investing in a $1000 laptop and a laser printer. An enormous sum of money to a fledgling, bootstrapping, credit card funded startup.

Over the next 20 years we would leverage that investment and countless hours of sweat equity on the part of a magnificent team into a $20,000,000 multinational company.

I've often thought about the long and circuitous path of that journey, wondering how to distill it down to a few critical lessons that were most important.

While that may may be a foolish exercise, born of the need to over-simplify something whose complexity has long since been forgotten, there is one thing that sticks out. It's something which I've since observed in the many other success stories I've seen or been part of. 

It's the simple act of defining a mission for the organization that acts as its compass in every decision. What the mission is has far less relevance than the abiding commitment to it. 

Our mission was to simplify complex technologies so that anyone could understand them.

Arrogant, right? Who were we to do that? Okay, I'll admit, perhaps a touch arrogant, but it wasn't rooted in an overly-inflated opinion of ourselves. It was about a conscious decision to make sure that everything we did simplified and clarified, rather than confused and obfuscated -- something tech industry pundits and futurists seemed to have a core competency in.

As a result of that mission we hired and trained our analysts and consultants to take the most complex ideas and turn them into the simplest of narratives. That was our mission and our value.  Thirty years later it still guides nearly everything I do.

"Mission doesn't pivot as your business model changes. Instead it answers the much more important question, why are you doing what you're doing?"

There are certainly more grandiose missions.

For example, in a recent podcast I did with Guy Kawasaki, Apple's original evangelist, he pointed out that when Apple introduced the Mac it wasn't just trying to change the way we used computers, instead it was fighting a battle against the forces of evil for the democratization of computing, the empowerment of the individual, and the struggle against what it described as the Orwellian threat of massive technology players who were creating cookie cutter solutions for the conforming masses. 

Given the current role of large tech players in observing our every behavior, we can debate how far we've come in achieving the ultimate trajectory of that vision. However, it has guided Apple in creating some of the most individually empowering technologies on the planet. 

Mission is deeply rooted in values. It is human-centered. It aligns the organization with its employees and its customers in a way that speaks to the desire we all have to be part of something much bigger and grander than ourselves. You mission is not about how you do what you do. It's not your vision of what you will one day be or the strategies you will use to get there. 

Mission doesn't pivot as your business model changes. Instead it answers the much more important question, why are you doing what you're doing? That's critical to success since it provides a way to align people throughout the organization when you get to those points where a crucial decision is being made about the future; mission is the true north that guides decision making.  

But, wait, you're saying, "I'm not Apple. How much of a difference can my mission make?" Don't sell yourself short. 

One of the most powerful examples I've ever seen of a mission that aligns an organization came from one of the most unlikely places.

It's Not Rocket Science

Twelve years ago I was leading the Center for Business Innovation at Babson College. We had member companies that were a who's who of the Fortune 100 from around the world. They were an incredibly diverse mix across all industries, from NASA to Bank of America. Each one was investing heavily in their innovation capability. 

At one point a small mid-Atlantic mining company, Luck Stone, approached us with an interest in membership. Compared to our behemoth members they were tiny; a relatively small family owned third generation business. What they did was not rocket science and it was not steeped in the complexity of  financial services. Their product was crushed stone. They did it well and they were tech savvy. But, what struck me was not what they did but instead the sincerity and commitment to their mission, to "Ignite Human Potential." 

"...mission is the true north that guides decision making."

Does that sound contrived, polylannaish, too simple to have meaning? Out of character for a company that digs holes in the ground? It did to me as well--at first. 

Yet, in countless interactions with them over the years I noticed that every investment they made, every product they innovated, in every interaction with a customer their actions and decisions were always governed by the question, how are we igniting human potential in what we do?

That ridiculously simple mission is at the core of why they exist.

Having a mission creates not only a moral center and a clear direction with which to guide innovation and growth, but it ultimately puts in place the framework within which to take on tough decisions and decide on strategic direction. 

So, what's your mission? Have you made it plain and put it at the center of your organization's reason for being? If you haven't, then why not? 

A company that crushes stone is igniting human potential; seriously, what's your excuse?

Published on: May 18, 2019
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