Just What Are You Trying To Say
November 13, 2012 /Forbes/ – “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity; but I would give my life for the simplicity the other side of complexity.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes
At jetBlue, an early attempt to craft a pithy, meaningful mission statement came out sounding like our auditors drafted it. The key line of the statement declared that we would become “the premier value-based carrier in the Americas.”
It didn’t take us long to realize that not a single customer, crewmember or shareholder would ever know what we meant by “premier value-based carrier.” So we went back to the drawing board.
When jetBlue was founded in 1999, airplanes had come to feel like crowded, expensive buses in the sky. We had wanted to change that. More than just making flying more affordable, we wanted to transform it into an enjoyable and inclusive experience – in the words of our founder, David Neeleman, to “bring humanity back to air travel.”
We realized that we wanted jetBlue to become “Americas’ Favorite Airline,” a rallying cry that has been our inspiration ever since for delivering customer-friendly flying.
Reflecting on this story got me thinking about the mission statements of many companies where I’ve served on boards over the past 40 years. Unlike jetBlue’s mantra, many mission statements are long and flowery, full of buzzwords and the language of lofty virtue. I’ve seen lots of businesses claim that, through their inviolable integrity, they’re going to change the world. What they don’t realize is that these attempts at being aspirational and even inspirational can often come off as vague, interchangeable and irrelevant.
Serving your customers well is the only sustainable way to run a profitable business. Thus, if you spend too much time straining to prove your nobility, you risk spinning your mission into oblivion. Mission statements written with business-speak or lofty rhetoric tend to engender cynicism rather than clarity and focus. Here is one such example: “It is our responsibility to assertively administrate timely deliverables in order to solve business problems”. Or another: “We aspire to be the premier provider of tasty take-out food while maintaining uncompromising principles”.
Whether a marketing slogan, a speech, or the design of a smartphone, boiling down what you’re about is essential to long-term success. The famous Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it nicely: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity; but I would give my life for the simplicity the other side of complexity.”
The simplicity Justice Holmes admires is the kind that captures complex ideas in a sentence – or an image, or a product – that anyone can understand. If you’ve achieved this kind of simplification, you know it’s rooted in the hard and often frustrating work of deep thinking, false starts, and trial and error. But the simple ideas that result can be the most powerful and inspiring, both to you and your customers.
At Peterson Partners, a small growth capital firm, we decided our business was going to be all about the entrepreneurs we backed. We figured if we put entrepreneurs first, our investors would see the best returns in the long run – and so would we. Our mission became to “help entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.” We knew that this was the essence of putting together good deals, attracting capital, and hiring the best partners.
When you write a good mission statement – or a good business plan or pitch – you’ll know how well you did by the number of heads nodding in agreement.
This is the art of saying what you mean. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to mean what you say. That’s all about execution, a topic for future posts.
By Joel Peterson