Mission Statements v. KPIs

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the value of Mission Statements in relation to KPIs or Outcomes. Are they bound to each other? Can you have one without the other? Do you need both, only one, or any of them?

In my lexicon, Mission Statements are the guiding light of a team or group trying to achieve something. KPIs/Outcomes are the measurable result of what you’re trying to achieve.

In practice, I’ve seen and used Mission Statements for several specific reasons:

  1. Give a team a broad direction in order to accomplish an ambiguous problem space, so that they can determine specific solutions.
  2. Create a strong team culture that’s bound together by a shared sense of purpose.

KPIs:

  1. Measure the efficacy of your team’s solutions to know with certainty whether you won or lost your battle.
  2. Set the expectation for what you want your product or solution to accomplish — a form of communication.

I’ve historically felt that Missions were needed before KPIs, but recently, I learned that’s not true at Apple. Apple was initially my gold standard for product excellence, so this forced me to reconsider my philosophy.

A colleague recently explained to me the way Apple leads their people to success: They keep them in a strategic vacuum. There are no mission statements, there is only excellence. When Steve Jobs was asked once about mission statements, he said something to the effect of “They’re bullshit, and you don’t need them. People at Apple are only expected to come into work and deliver excellence. That’s it.”

The more I thought about my history with mission statements, the more I began to realize that I had originally created them to sate the product development requirements of one or several of my superiors. Often, I had horrible fucking missions for my team, but they were accepted as “done,” simply because they existed. What I never had early in my career were great KPIs, and I sit writing this now wondering why I was never challenged more on that front. I wonder if it’s because the nature of mission statements encourage you to ponder the future in a masturbatory sense, and ineffective groups get off on that activity. That pun was very intentional.

As I matured in my role, and met other Product Managers in the company, I learned to be more goal oriented, and less mission oriented. A problem I encountered was when I adopted a pre-existing product, and tried to fit a new mission statement to it, without understanding what I wanted to do achieve with the product. So, starting on that product, I was boxed in by thinking about a single arbitrary statement, rather than the opportunity to achieve a number of things that are important to our business and our customers. I was encouraged to blow up the concept of the team, and start from scratch. If I were to do everything all over again, what would I want to achieve (disregarding the product, too)? That freed me up to conceive of the true end result of my teams’ work.

I always worry that some of this may sound completely obvious to those brighter and more experienced than me, which I believe to be many people, but I’ve seen young leaders fall prey to this constricted mindset time and again. It frustrates me to no end, because I know they’re about to experience some of the same pains I had, and because I often don’t see their managers helping them climb out of that God forsaken rut. Their managers take a sink or swim management approach. I do what I can to help people when I spot them, but time, timeliness, and visibility are limited. So I write this essay as a form of high leverage teaching.


The other problem I’ve seen with Mission Statements is the misinterpretation of what’s written or expressed by the team lead. If a mission statement isn’t expertly, surgically wordsmithed, a team’s understanding of their objective can be lead astray by their unique past experiences, leading to individual interpretations of the mission statement. Since communication is one of the most difficult human activities to master, people screw missions up all the time, and teams are sent in horrible directions, and worthless products are wrought.


What I’ve been theorizing recently is that you don’t need a Mission Statement (maybe at all) to be successful. You may only need KPIs and Outcomes. These accurately describe the problem you’re trying to solve, because they’re often the inverse of the problem itself (e.g. Problem: We aren’t selling units of X; Outcome from solution: We are selling units of X). The most important thing in my mind is a team’s understanding of the problem they should be solving and why it’s a problem. So if anything, create problem statement. If you can understand why it’s a problem for you, your company, or your customer, the potential solutions become much more clear, and so do your desired Outcomes.

If you attack problems with that framework, and what you realize is that you’re not actually solving the problem, then what you learn is that you clearly don’t understand it, and you need to dig into it more and get to the root of the problem. That, in my mind, is a fantastic result. What you’ve done wrong and what you need to do is clear cut.

Running off of a Mission Statement may keep you running in circles trying to figure out if your mission sucked, you suck, your team sucks, or your KPIs suck. Always go back to your understanding of the problem, and reassess what you’re trying to achieve. If you somehow can’t measure what you’re trying to achieve, you probably don’t understand your problem.


I’m not entirely convinced of my new argument yet, but it’s something I’m going to try on.

Aside from Apple, there are companies that have done phenomenally well with a mission driven culture: Google and Facebook are great examples. Respectively: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful; Connect the world. Dope. These are great at pointing large numbers of teams to new problem spaces that are in the company’s business interests.

Beyond those top level statements, I am skeptical of the value of mission statements. Just clearly state how your product or work is solving the problem of a disconnected world (in facebook’s case), and how it’s solving it better than all other possible solutions, and you’re golden.

Good luck.