Mission Questions, Not Mission Statements

What if companies had mission questions instead of mission statements? How much more engaging and inviting would this be than the typical bland pronouncements about “being number one” or “being the best”? Why do you want to be number one? What learning, discoveries and milestones — what unfolding story — is to be found on that path? What are you all wildly curious about? What compels you to come together in this work because you can’t gain enough insight into the story alone?

“Your greatest source of untapped power is the part of your story that is unreconciled.”
— Michael Margolis

Such a mission question (or, more likely, a set of them) implies that there is clear intention but also much that is unknown. And though this is an expression of vulnerability, it is not an admission of weakness.  Instead, it is likely to be a source of strength and deep engagement. As storytelling master Michael Margolis advises: “Your greatest source of untapped power is the part of your story that is unreconciled.”

This matches with my own experience. For the past ten years, my work has often involved helping organizations craft a manifesto — a concise expression of who they are, what they want, and what has to be true if they are to get what they want. The highly participatory and inquisitive process of getting there is always vital and engaging. But looking back, I realize that the subsequent process of creating a definitive statement always feels noticeably less alive. Instead of excited co-creation, there is debate. People wonder whether the document truly describes everyone involved, whether they can really claim to be all that, or whether they should be so pretentious as to publicly announce their loftiest aspirations. In contrast, a mission question seems more likely to be able to hold diversity even as it builds unity, to demonstrate humility alongside audacity, and to invite a broad community to see themselves in it — to recognize that it is also their question. The thing that makes people feel really alive and connected is being in the questions together. When that comes to a close, so does the life in their interactions.

The thing that makes people feel really alive and connected is being in the questions together.

All of this makes perfect sense within the context of thrivability. When we see an organization as a living system, employees, customers and partners can’t truly be considered separate from the organization. With this understanding, we see that the most appropriate and powerful relationship with them is one of ongoing conversation and co-creation. And any good conversation is, in essence, a genuinely curious collective exploration of an unanswered question. It’s the living process of crafting a story together — of being in shared service of its unfolding.

My friend Cameron Stiff and I played with the idea of a mission question yesterday during a walk through the woods. His company, Compost Montreal, has the stated aim of “eliminating the concept of waste.” Each week, they pick up food scraps from houses and offices, diverting the material from landfills and converting it into useful compost. But the deeper potential Cameron senses for the company is the exploration of how composting can serve as a metaphor for the transformation that people are capable of, especially together. “What if we embraced the concept of rot and death…and also renewal?” he wondered, with growing excitement. “What if every aspect of our business were in service of that exploration? For example, how could our hiring practices and our ways of working together serve that question? And what kinds of conversations could we engage our customers and community in?”

When I think about the most powerful companies in the world, I struggle to imagine what their questions might be, beyond those of self-interested domination and profit for its own sake. My friend Flemming Funch had an astute take on this. The presence of clear uncertainty about outcomes “might possibly be a way of discerning whether a company is up to some good or not,” he proposed. “If it is truly trying to solve a problem and do something that hasn’t been done, great. If not, it is highly suspect, and probably just a cover for somebody’s money machine.”

“That we don’t know how it will end,” he says, “means that we’re alive. So we should embrace the unknown and the discovery process, as that’s the real interesting part, not something we should try to hide away.”

“That we don’t know how it will end means that we’re alive.”
— Flemming Funch

All of this is likely to take some practice, and more than a little support. But what if we just start with a few questions of our own, like: What niggling curiosity do you have about where your work might take you? What’s ripe with possibility in the unfolding story of your work?

[Here is my favorite resource for crafting questions: The Art of Powerful Questions, by Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs.]

This post originally appeared in Michelle Holliday’s Solarium blog at her Cambium Consulting website on Oct. 25, 2014.

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