Forget the Mission Statement. Ask the Mission Question

Photograph by Neal White/Gallery Stock

The philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the thing you have long taken for granted.”

For curiosity’s sake, let us take Russell’s suggestion and apply it to the corporate mission statement—a thing that is often “taken for granted” (not to mention ignored, and occasionally ridiculed). What if we were to take the typical mission statement and “hang a question mark” on the end of it?

This is an idea I began to think about while working on a book about the power of questions to spark innovation. As I learned in my research, questions (especially thoughtful ones) have quite a lot going for them—which may surprise those in business who tend to place more value on answers, pronouncements, and promises.

Questions motivate and persuade people: The author Daniel Pink has shown that questions can help close a sale or even win an election (“Are you better off now than four years ago?”). Questions also drive innovation. Many technological breakthroughs, from the cell phone to the Internet, started with a question, as did startup companies from Polaroid to Netflix. Questions help employees work collaboratively at companies such as Google and IDEO (both of which employ the “How Might We” method of group questioning). They also enable many top executives to lead their companies successfully: the consultant Hal Gregersen says that in studies of the key characteristics of top creative executives, “being a good questioner” is one of the most important.

Still, one might reason, even if questioning has a critical role in business, a company’s mission statement must be clear, purposeful, unambiguous, and authoritative—there’s no question about that, right? But just read through the mission statements of leading companies (not recommended for those who doze off easily), and what you mostly encounter are vague promises, grandiose declarations, and banal slogans. We discover, for example, that the Hershey Company is “bringing sweet moments of Hershey happiness to the world every day,” while Wal-Mart “save(s) people money so they can live better.”

One big problem with most mission statements is they don’t give much sense of a mission—it’s hard to glean if there’s a larger purpose or goal, and how the company might be working to reach it. In fact, a number of mission statements describe what the company is already doing. And as the consultant Min Basadur points out, “You don’t want the mission statement to make it sound like you’re already there.” That means there’s no place to go.

Given that we’re in a time of dynamic change—and a time when the public is both more cynical of company claims and also more attuned to a company’s greater values—it just might be time to ditch the static mission statement for a more open-ended, optimistic mission question. Consider the tonal difference between stating, “We make the world a better place through robotics!” and asking, “How might we make the world a better place through robotics?”

By articulating the company mission as a question, it allows a company to be ambitious without sacrificing credibility. It tells the outside world, “This is what we’re striving for—we know we’re not there yet, but we’re on the journey.” It acknowledges room for change and adaptability.

A mission question might also invite more participation and collaboration. IDEO chief executive Tim Brown points out that questions, by their very nature, challenge people and invite them to engage with an idea or an issue—and could therefore do likewise in terms engaging employees with a company mission.

Thinking of a company mission as a shared endeavor—an ongoing attempt to answer a bold question through collaborative inquiry—seems vastly preferable to having to live up to a dictum handed down from on high. Whose “mission” would you rather join: The company that has set out to answer a big, ambitious question—or the one that claims to have figured it all out and distilled it down to an official “statement?”