The typical problem with Mission Statements is that they are generic, very broad and not memorable. Most importantly, Mission Statements attempt to combine the underlying purpose of the organization with its method of advancing that purpose. This is problematic because as methods change over time, the Mission Statement needs to be redone.

Something as critical to your culture as a Mission Statement should be able to stand the test of time, and that is a key reason we advocate for replacing a Mission Statement or Vision Statement with these foundational elements of Culture By Design. These elements highlight how organizations stand to benefit by establishing the difference between their values, goals and operations. While we’ve found this to be true in practice, many of these thoughts were directly influenced by Jim Collins’ work on “Building Your Company’s Vision.”

Exit Mission Statement. Enter the Foundational Layers of Culture By Design.

Layer 1: Core Purpose – The Why

This is the true foundation of your culture and explains why your organization exists. Your Core Purpose must be deeply meaningful and inspire everyone within and outside your team. Most importantly, it must stand the test of time and be meaningful indefinitely. Some examples of great Core Purpose statements:

  • Disney: To make people happy
  • Merck: To preserve and improve human life
  • Fannie Mae: To strengthen the social fabric by continually democratizing home ownership

Layer 2: Core Values – The How

Core Values define the agreed upon behaviors all team members are expected to maintain. They should never be “get in the game” values such as honesty, integrity and reliability. Those are “get in the game” values because every organization expects them. Core Values should define what is unique about your organization. All organizations have them, but often they are left undiscovered. They are unique and clear and help you hire, fire, partner and make key business decisions. An example of a Core Value at the company I founded, Aptify, is flexibility.

Here is how we defined it:

Most importantly, Core Values can’t be the stuff on walls of meeting rooms that are never activated in real life. They need to be brought alive every day in conversation, in writing and in decision making. Core Values also need to be limited, ideally to less than five, to make them easier to remember.

Layer 3: Envisioned Future – The Where and What

With the why and the how of your culture clearly established through Purpose and Values respectively, the question is, what are you going to go do? In other words, where is the organization headed? This is the vision part of your culture and the one layer that should evolve over time. Whereas purpose and values should stand the test of time, envisioned future will change because the world around you is changing, and you are achieving goals you declared in past visions.

There are two instruments for describing the envisioned future that I am particularly fond of: The first is the BHAG – the Big Hairy Audacious Goal. The BHAG is a long-term (10-30 year) goal that is incredibly challenging and, most importantly, not something you know how to do. You will eventually figure it out over time, but it is a bright star in the sky to keep reaching for. Great examples of BHAGs:

  • Microsoft’s First BHAG: A computer on every desk and in every home
  • JFK: A man on the moon within the decade
  • Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Eradicate malaria by the middle of the 21st Century

None of these BHAGs seemed possible when first declared. They were all “moonshots” in their own way, but they provided inspiration and resulted in people aligning their efforts to point towards the same star together.

While a BHAG is directionally helpful and inspirational when done well, you need to fill in the gaps and provide a near term, more concrete vision. I am a big fan of the idea of a Painted Picture, in which you map out the vision for the next 3 years in great detail. A BHAG is typically not detailed; it is a clear, yet audacious goal that seems far out. In comparison, a Painted Picture is a very detailed and nearer term vision. The benefit of the 3-year time horizon is that it is far off enough so you can dream a bit, but close enough you have to start building your plans around achieving what is written in it.

Mission Statements confuse, bore and grow out of date quickly. In comparison, the Foundational Layers of Culture by Design provide you with two immutable foundational elements in the Core Purpose and Core Values that together form the Core Ideology of the organization.

The Vision, which rests upon those two layers, is how you get people aligned to go after goals, both big and small, that advance your purpose and keep you true to your Values. By getting rid of your Mission Statement and incorporating Purpose and Value into your planning, you can establish yourself as a motivational organization with a clear cultural identity and path forward.

Amith Nagarajan is an entrepreneur who believes in combining purpose, passion and profit. Amith grew up in Silicon Valley and, in 1993, started Aptify, which is now part of Community Brands. Aptify is a purpose-driven company focused on providing technology and services to the not-for-profit sector around the globe. More recently, Amith founded Association Success Corporation, a group of businesses rooted in a shared purpose of helping associations achieve greater success. Association Success' companies include rasa.io (The AI Company for Associations) and AssociationSuccess.org (content and learning resources).

Amith Nagarajan is an entrepreneur who believes in combining purpose, passion and profit. Amith grew up in Silicon Valley and, in 1993, started Aptify, which is now part of Community Brands. Aptify is a purpose-driven company focused on providing technology and services to the not-for-profit sector around the globe. More recently, Amith founded Association Success Corporation, a group of businesses rooted in a shared purpose of helping associations achieve greater success. Association Success' companies include rasa.io (The AI Company for Associations) and AssociationSuccess.org (content and learning resources).

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