Want More Innovation? Change Your Mission Statement.

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When it comes to creating an innovation culture, you get what you ask for.

The Talking Heads may have alluded to this phenomenon most eloquently in the song “Give Me Back My Name.” The lyrics read: “There’s a word for it, and words don’t mean a thing. There’s a name for it, and names make all the difference in the world …” The point being, the language we use to describe things, beyond the most basic categorization, can affect our perceptions and, more importantly, the inherent opportunities we see in them.

At no time is this phenomenon more relevant than when crafting your company’s mission statement. Far too often, companies fail to see how the language they choose to describe their company or its mission can either promote or stifle innovation.

Amazon Is Not A Retailer

Amazon states their mission as: “… to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices.” At first blush, you may understand that as meaning they are an online retailer that wants to sell you anything and everything, cheaply. But the more nuanced interpretation, which I believe is more correct, is that they quite simply want a cut of every online transaction, period.

To employ an overused phrase from the startup community, Amazon is a platform for facilitating that mission, whether or not Amazon is ultimately the seller. That language leaves them not only open to innovative arrangements like affiliate marketing and contract fulfillment but also for unique partnerships with services like Amazon Web Services (AWS).

The perfect example is Netflix, which despite ostensibly being a competitor to Amazon’s own Prime Video service, is also one of Amazon’s largest AWS customers. You might expect a company to deny its direct competitors access to their foundational content delivery technology. But denying Netflix access to the service would be in violation of the mission. And in reality, it’s a win-win for all.

Apple Is Not A Computer Company

“To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” That’s how Steve Jobs spoke of the company when he ran it. The statement doesn’t focus on any specific hardware. That foresight allowed Apple to expand into more consumer electronics categories beyond its original roots. That expansion, however, highlighted another issue regarding the language with which Apple was describing itself.

At the Macworld Expo in 2007, Steve Jobs famously stepped out onto his keynote stage and announced, “The Mac, iPod, Apple TV and iPhone. Only one of those is a computer. So we’re changing the name.” At that moment, the company ceased being Apple Computer and simply became Apple.

Why did it matter? Would we consumers have purchased fewer iPhones or iPods had the word computer been left in the name? Probably not. Jobs understood what the power of that simple change in language would have on everyone within the company. To paraphrase, employees would think differently about what constituted a viable opportunity for the business. Since that time, Apple has added services including iTunes, Music, iCloud, the App Store and, most recently, Apple Pay — a few of which are even available on non-Apple-branded hardware.

Is Apple still a hardware company? Of course. But their services business for the fourth fiscal quarter of 2017 is expected to come in at around a record $7.26 billion, itself large enough to qualify as a Fortune 100 business.

How To Determine Whether Your Mission Statement Is Innovation Ready

So, how can you ensure your own mission is at once descriptive, directional and inspirational enough to become the bedrock for an innovation culture? Here are a few questions you may want to ask yourself:

Is the objective aspirational?

Far too often, companies develop mission statements with objectives that are satisfied entirely by their current offering, positioning the job in the minds of employees as “done.” For an innovation culture, it’s best to always keep the carrot at the end of a moving stick. Instead of asking to be great at what you do, ask for something akin to a transformation of the human condition.

Is it broad enough to encompass what’s yet to be created?

The point here is that being a company that describes itself as offering “next generation illumination for the world” provides more opportunity for adapting to new technologies than, say, describing the company as, “leaders in incandescent lighting.”

Does it glorify the pursuit?

The pursuit of innovation is as much, or more, about taking risks, iterating, failing and discarding as it is about seizing the reins of the next successful new idea. This suggests the mission should, in kind, elevate the importance of the pursuit as much, or more, than any desired end.

You may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”

It seems only fitting to end with more lyrics from the Talking Heads. Love them or hate them, they’re innovative. And the truth is the path to innovation is similarly experienced and not easily traced through obviously connected moments of cause and effect. You won’t always know how you got there. But the more breadcrumbs you can leave for everyone along the way — such as the company mission statement — the easier it will be for everyone in the company to come along for the journey.

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