Your mission, should you choose to accept it
From Ethan Hunt to Elon Musk, it takes being on a mission to accomplish the impossible
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Mission: Impossible movie franchise is how consistent it’s been over the years in achieving its purpose — continuity be damned.
With every installment, we’ve seen Tom Cruise’s character — Ethan Hunt — take on as many bad guys as he’s sported haircuts, chase as many McGuffins as he’s changed relationship status, and gain exponential acrobatic/martial arts/hacker/motorcycle skills as the years have gone by. All of this while working for the Impossible Mission Force (I.M.F), an organization in such a perpetual state of disarray that it’s been infiltrated by moles, plagued by rogue agents, framed, disbanded, absorbed by the CIA, and reinstated — sometimes all in the course of the same movie.
But despite playing loose with narrative arcs, the M:I franchise has one thing in common with its super spy protagonist. It is absolutely resolute in pursuing its objective: delivering audiences with edge-of-your-seat thrills, exotic set pieces, and balletic action heaped on a platter of swift escapism. That is the mission of Mission: Impossible, and one that it accomplishes exceedingly well.
That the fifth and latest installment, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (which I finally caught up to last week) is still sitting on top of the international box office for over a month is a testament to how powerful and enduring that mission has been.
Indeed, few ventures, be they in the movie business or just business in general, have achieved the staying power and thrilling resurgence the M:I franchise has had in the last two decades, let alone across five distinct movies, featuring the same lead actor(s).
The Fast and Furious series may be close — in all seriousness — but hasn’t attained the same level of critical acclaim. In the technology space, you’d have to look as far as Apple or Amazon to find analogs whose standout commercial successes have been fueled by decades of unwavering attention towards a single ideal. Whether it’s about respectively producing the world’s best personal computing products, or striving to be the most “customer-centric” company known to earth, both companies have this in common with the M:I franchise: they’re all ventures with a discernible mission.
What is your mission?
For businesses, the implication is clear. To earn that kind of staying power you either need to be on a mission, or design one and maniacally execute against it. Because nothing is more galvanizing than that rallying cry that motivates your team to do the impossible. And whether you’re a Fortune 500, or a two person startup, nothing drives longstanding results like that shared sense of purpose.
So how do you get on a mission? Thankfully, both the M:I franchise and business leaders have provided ample guidance over the years. Here are four steps you can follow today to articulate and accomplish your mission, Mission: Impossible style.
Step 1: Define the target
“Your mission should you choose to accept it…”
We all recognize that opening line to the message received by Ethan Hunt at the beginning of every movie, and for good cause. It’s crisp, to the point, and what follows uses simple but precise language — typically something along the lines of “find [bad guy], retrieve [nefarious stolen technology], save the world.”
Put together, the message spells out long-term success, not tactics. And that’s crucial, because when crafting your mission, you need to do the same thing.
First of all, you need to be crystal clear about what you’re going after. Every company can set strategic goals, but that’s a very different exercise than setting a mission. Getting to a billion dollar run rate, or going public, are all important and admirable milestones, but they do not codify long term success, nor do they demonstrate ultimate commitment towards a vision.
Second of all, you need to imbue that vision with something that’ll get you and your team fired up. Every. Freaking. Day. Business author Simon Sinek describes this as the why. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why do you believe your approach to be believiable and differentiated? And why would anyone choose to follow you? Nail this, and not only will you get people on board, you’ll get the right ones.
Case study: Can you guess which company has the following mission statement?
“_____’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.”
Not the sexiest sounding thing is it?
Would it surprise you then to know that it’s Tesla’s mission? Yes that Tesla, the company that might have just built the best car in the world, and potentially redefining what a car is for generations to come.
Picking their mission statement apart, notice two things:
- First, there’s nothing in it about making a car, let alone a six-figure electric sports sedan. Why? Because that’s just a tactic, a means to an end. And the end matters because it’s what inspires. For Tesla it’s been described in Ashlee Vance’s excellent biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, as nothing less than a bid to “[change] the energy equation of the country”.
- Second, as far as mission statements go, it’s bold but clearly stated. Sure, it probably sounded bonkers at the time, but it’s filled with intent–enough for Musk to get the right people on board then, and now. Speak to any Tesla employee, whether they be in San Francisco or in Montreal, and it’s almost word for word what they articulate, because they believe in that mission. And with over 1 billion miles driven collectively by Tesla cars around the world to date, and a platform comprised of products, services and an ecosystem in the making built around them, it’s hard not to be a believer as well.
Getting to a billion dollar run rate, or going public, are all important and admirable milestones, but they do not codify long term success, nor do they demonstrate ultimate commitment towards a vision.
The clearer you define your target in terms of end goal and intent, the easier it will be to recruit the right people to sign up for it. Which takes us to step 2.
Step 2: Build the team
As soon as Ethan Hunt receives his mission, the next thing he does is select his team. In the movies, that typically happens via a cool montage featuring awesome spy music, cut scenes to exotic locales, and squinch-ey headshots of IMF agents.
You, on the other hand, will probably start with LinkedIn.
But that’s okay, as whether you’re recruiting your first employee or the nine thousandth and ninety ninth, you can and you must be as selective as Ethan Hunt, by stress-testing each of them against the mission.
“Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close”
Many business leaders talk about the importance of hiring. With your target defined, you may know what you want to accomplish, but not exactly how to get there, and that’s where getting the right people on board matters. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, put it in the following terms:
“[L]eaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”
How do you know when you have the right people on the bus? Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar describes their company’s ideal quite nicely in his book Creativity, Inc when he describes “the Braintrust”.
At Pixar, the Braintrust is the sounding board for every director working on a film, and effectively the QA process for every movie that’s shipped. They’re the people whose collective brainpower you can tap, and who’ll give it to you straight, no matter what. They channel the mission, offering Pixar’s stable of filmakers with feedback that’s additive — not competitive — delivered with a type of “candor that overrides any hierarchy”.
Think about some of the people you trust and respect the most at your job, your work BFF if you will, and surely this will resonate. When getting people to join your mission, and possibly be part of your “braintrust”, Catmull advises to “seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close.”
For Ethan Hunt, it’s that additive feedback from his own Braintrust — his team of agents — that has time and again helped him stay one step ahead of the enemy. Which leads us to step 3.
Step 3: Empower the team
From the very beginning, the M:I movies were designed to have a different director come in for every installment, with each bringing their own sensibilities to the table, all in service of the mission. It was a condition that first-time producer, Mr. Cruise, insisted upon when he agreed to take on the franchise for Paramount Pictures, and a selection process that he’s personally involved with each time.
It was also a stroke of genius from an organizational design perspective. The series has excelled in showcasing and empowering a diverse cast of directors (Brian de Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, Christopher McQuarrie) as well as actors, guaranteeing movies that have always felt fresh, yet firmly in the zeitgeist.
For Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, the fourth movie in the series, director and — coincidentally Pixar alum — Brad Bird talked at lengths about how he was encouraged to put his own visual and storytelling fingerprints on the movie: from being able to exert his own dose of zany humor during tense action scenes (to great effect), to getting real-time input from his actors and being able to act on it with the help of Cruise. Ghost Protocol was Bird’s first feature film as he came from the world of animation, but despite that he felt deeply entrusted by Cruise and his producing team to take their prized franchise to the next level. Rogue Nation director, Christopher McQuarrie, himself describes this special type of empowerment by Cruise and team as being backed “to the wall”.
Granting, and reinforcing autonomy is paramount when it comes to empowering team members. But more often than not, the best way to have them accomplish the impossible is to couch the mission and its success as a choice only they can make.
“I need the impossible done by Friday at two P.M. Can you do it?”
Some of the best people I’ve either worked with, or for, in my career have been people who have pushed others to not just deliver what’s needed, but to also act like the owner.
It’s a technique that Elon Musk uses quite a bit. Quoting once again from his biography:
“Where a typical manager may set the deadline for the employee, Musk guides his engineers into taking ownership of their own delivery dates. “He doesn’t say, ‘You have to do this by Friday at two P.M.,’” […] “He says, ‘I need the impossible done by Friday at two P.M. Can you do it?’ Then, when you say yes, you are not working hard because he told you to. You’re working hard for yourself. It’s a distinction you can feel.”
If you or your team are working on something you truly believe in, neither of you will stop until it’s done. However, it’s your job to make sure you’re working on the right thing. Which brings us to step 4.
Step 4: Accept that the mission will change
In almost every movie, Ethan Hunt and his team attain their main objective by the second act, only to find out that the playing field has shifted. Either they lose the upper hand to the villain, or someone important to them is in peril, which means that they have to risk it all, all over again.
In other words, their mission has changed.
That’s not uncommon in the business world either. To quote The Fugees, “seasons change, mad things rearrange”. When faced with competition, disruption via new and/or disintermediating technologies, or even a market downturn, think about how many companies have had to pivot, or how many brands have had to reinvent themselves over the years, whether ultimately successfully or not.
Yes, your mission is essential to defining your success, but it’s not immutable — parameters can, and will change. When you have a talented team, they will adapt with you if the circumstances call for it, but the onus is on you to steer the ship with the same clarity and intent that got everyone aboard the first time around. That way your team can choose to pursue the newer objectives with the same sense of purpose, dedication and empowerment as before.
Perhaps the most striking and recent example of a business steering its ship when faced with change is what Google did last month with its reorganization around a new holding company, Alphabet. While there hasn’t been much more news since their initial announcement, the intent couldn’t be clearer. Alphabet is about its leaders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, restating their mission. And in that it’s exactly about enabling the right people to work on the right things — unencumbered, and fully empowered.
And it just might also be about Larry taking a page from Elon’s book, which was published before their big announcement. Page 353, to be exact:
“Google has invested more than just about any other technology company into’s Musk’s sort of moon-shot projects: self-driving cars, robots, and even a cash prize to get a machine onto the moon cheaply. The company, however, operates under a set of constraints and expectations that come with employing tens of thousands of people and being analyzed constantly by investors. It’s with this in mind that Page sometimes feels a bit envious of Musk, who has managed to make radical ideas the basis of his companies. “If you think about Silicon Valley or corporate leaders in general, they’re not usually lacking in money,” Page said. “If you have all this money, which presumably you’re going to give away and couldn’t even spend it all if you wanted to, why then are you devoting your time to a company that’s not really doing anything good? That’s why I find Elon to be an inspiring example. He said, ‘Well, what should I really do in this world? Solve cars, global warming, and make humans multi planetary.’ I mean those are pretty compelling goals, and now he has businesses to do that.”
The only thing that matters is the mission
If you’re on a mission, make it happen. If you’re not, find one, demand one, or create one for yourself. Because when you choose to take on a mission that matters to you personally you can accomplish, well, the impossible. And like Ethan Hunt, you’ll be relentless, because the only thing that can self-destruct is a message, not the messenger.
I write at the intersection of technology, leadership, and awesome things I geek out on. This post originally appeared here. For more of my writing, check out my other posts here. This post was written using iA Writer, mostly during my daily commute.