Ben Holliday

The mission

Missions are built on words then actions

The mission
Image – nasamarshall

Mission: An important assignment given to a person or group of people…

The words we start with are important. I’ve been thinking about mission statements as something most organisations, services, or product teams aren’t great at.

There are good examples but too many organisations focus on delivering ‘better customer service’. That’s what I call a fuzzy mission statement. It doesn’t reach far enough, it’s not real enough, and it’s too hard to measure.

Having thought about this a great deal, here’s what I think helps define a great mission statement, or any mission worth having. I’m including some examples that I’ve seen.

1. Find something human

A good mission statement has a human foundation. It gets technology out of the way and recognises the real problem we’re trying to solve for people.

Start by focusing on what your mission really means to other people. In technology terms, this is where more automation is only effective if it helps grow community – connecting people and supporting what makes us stronger as a society, rather than breaking those connections.

An example, Co-op Funeralcare. Mission: “Give time back to Funeral Directors to spend with clients.”

This mission could have been: “Fix the broken administration systems that funeral directors have to use.” Instead, it focuses on the human problem behind the service. What good funeral care really looks like. The relationships between people and the service and the care they provide to grieving families.

At the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) we could use something similar for our work on Carer’s Allowance. This service is about supporting the time people spend providing care for others. The financial support provided does this, but crucially the amount of time taken to get that support, and to continue getting that support, also needs to be kept to a minimum. The mission is to give time back and we’ve invested in making the ‘Apply for Carer’s Allowance’ service a much faster application process for this reason.

As a final point, if your organisation is focused on fixing inefficient systems or reducing costs, the best way to do that is to design something that works well for people.

2. Make it hard to measure, but not immeasurable

Human qualities like improved relationships, support, and trust are hard to measure. They’re not usually quantitative and highlight the need for ongoing qualitative research and understanding. That said, a good mission statement is something we can measure. With any mission you have to know when you’ve arrived.

An example, Skyscanner. Mission:“Be the most trusted and most used online travel brand in the world.”

Trust is hard to measure, but it’s also something that would give Skyscanner a genuine competitive advantage over other companies, so it’s worth working towards. Being the ‘most used travel brand’ is much easier to measure and gives this balance. I like this statement as, ultimately, they will have to invest in both qualitative and quantitative understanding to succeed.

3. Think big, but not beyond imagination

Any mission worth having has to be bold. There has to be something that’s worth aiming at. It has to be far reaching but not beyond imagination.

The team working on the problem, the product, the future, have to be able to picture what it looks like. If other people can’t imagine the future you’re leading them towards then you’re limiting your chance of success.

An example, Universal Credit. Mission: “Help more people, find more work, more of the time; while supporting those that can’t.”

There’s a disclaimer on this example. This isn’t an official Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) mission statement. I’ve borrowed the example from Tom Loosemore’s keynote at last year’s Service Design in Government conference.

This is an example of a big mission, but it’s not too big. If the mission was to ‘end poverty’ then it would be much more difficult to imagine what that future might look like without a way of working towards it from within the existing welfare state. To organise a team of people around something you need just enough detail for them to work towards.

To summarise, the job of DWP service design teams isn’t to ‘end poverty’. It’s to deliver better services for people affected by poverty. This works to support DWP’s purpose “helping people lift themselves out of poverty and stay out of poverty”. For people to do this they need better services for housing and education, as well as health and disability support.

I think there’s an important point here about knowing where you are. The size of your mission requires situational awareness.

Just as service design teams at DWP are working to deliver future digital services within the welfare state, the job of HMRC service design teams isn’t to reinvent the tax system. It’s their job to make that system more accessible, navigable and most of all, adaptable to future change.

I’ll contrast this with when I worked at FreeAgent – an accounting startup. Their mantra (mission) was all about “demystifying accounting and redefining the relationship people have with their finances”. That’s something bigger than just making it relatively straightforward for people to pay their taxes. What’s beyond imagination within government, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be someone else’s mission. It’s about understanding the constraints of where you’re operating from.

4. Make it tangible, but not a solution

Having a vision of the future helps us to understand the first set of problems around us that we need to solve to move forward.

A vague mission doesn’t help us understand where we are so it’s important to make your mission tangible. Create something that starts with the problem but doesn’t set out the details of an end solution.

An example, HelloFresh. Mission: “Give everyone – regardless of the time they have at their disposal or the cooking skills they possess – an opportunity to discover the pleasure of cooking healthy, tasty meals.”

This is another example I like. Again, it focuses on time, but it doesn’t dictate the solution to the problem. It sets out the problem and in doing so sets the direction for the company. Everyone should be clear about what they’re working towards: giving people without enough time the chance to cook healthy meals themselves at home.

5. Keep it open

This is about being prepared to evolve your mission. A vision of the future won’t always be where we end up. A mission is something to help steer us in the right direction. Be prepared to evolve it. Revisit it as you learn and adapt to the problem spaces around you.

I’m going to make the argument here that any mission statement in discovery, or early in the inception of a new product or service, should evolve through continuous learning as teams understand user needs. We should redefine our missions around how we come to understand each problem space.

When writing an early mission statement, start with active phrasing that places an emphasis on the team. Such as, “find ways to look at [something]”, or “explore [something] to find opportunities”. Let these statements evolve from being open into something more substantial as part of a learning process. Give yourself something more concrete to work with as your team continues to grow and learn.

Most of all, be honest about where you’re starting from. Every problem space looks different and some missions should start by being more open than others.

The hard reality of the mission

It’s important for organisations to have a mission but as I’ve talked about this also works on different levels.

There needs to be a sense of a ‘grand-mission’ in organisations but also a sense of direction at a team level. How much these missions vary will depend entirely on the size of the organisation.

If you think of the mission as your goal, team cohesion around this goal is almost as important as the goal itself. Getting everyone pointing in the same direction at the outset is much easier than trying to find your focus later on.

Having a mission only matters if you align everything you do around it. Too many companies have mission statements that don’t truly reflect the things they do, the decisions they make or how they choose to operate.

The challenge is whether your mission really drives your decisions?

For many organisations profit drives decisions over any true sense of mission and we should be more honest about that. That said, especially in the public sector, I believe this leaves us with very little excuse not to become aligned around a greater sense of shared mission and direction. Restrictions on spending are a constraint that can be applied to design, not an excuse for misaligned direction or a lack of purpose.

Failure of any mission is a detachment from both the reality of what you deliver and the way that you work towards this. The biggest failures I’ve seen were because the size and ambition of the mission just wasn’t set right, or the mission and direction of the company wasn’t being used to shape the culture of the organisation in a positive way.

Your next steps

If you work on a service, product or startup I would encourage you to get a better sense of your mission. Write it down, and make it something that your team organise themselves around.

The language we use is important, so frame it. Be proud of your mission and don’t be afraid to put down a marker.

In my opinion the most dangerous teams are the ones without a mission. Teams without a sense of where they’re going and how they’ll know when they’re done.

Make sure you have something worth working towards.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.