Believe it or not, Twitter Inc. has a perfectly respectable mission statement:
Our mission: To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.
CEO Dick Costolo had to point this out Wednesday night, after a slide from aninvestor presentation by CFO Anthony Noto became the laughingstock of Twitter. It featured a Venn diagram with interlocking circles labeled “objective,” “scope,” and “competitive advantages,” then this “strategy statement”:
Reach the largest daily audience in the world by connecting everyone to their world via our information sharing and distribution platform products and be one of the top revenue generating Internet companies in the world.
This is 80 characters over Twitter’s 140-character limit. It is also a wordy, clunky mess that instantly lent itself to derision, revision, and even this complicated sentence diagram. Then again, as Peter Kafka of Re/code pointed out, investors seemed perfectly happy with it, as the company stock price rose 7% by the end of the day.
This raises a question: Does it really matter if a company has a good mission statement?
My reading of the HBR literature on this is that the answer is yes. Maybe not a mission statement per se, but a vision, a set of goals, a strategic intent that (1) goes beyond just making lots of money and (2) is unique to the company. In other words, something that doesn’t sound like this:
The Company’s primary objective is to maximize long-term stockholder value, while adhering to the laws of the jurisdictions in which it operates and at all times observing the highest ethical standards.
That’s the profoundly uninspiring and undistinguished mission statement of Dean Foods , which I learned about in Greg McKeown’s 2012 HBR.org piece, “If I Read One More Platitude-Filled Mission Statement, I’ll Scream,” a helpful guide to paring down a “directional document” to what really matters. The closest thing to a definitive guide to building such a document in the first place may be James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras’s 1996 HBR article “Building Your Company’s Vision.” Here’s their explanation for why an organization needs a vision:
Truly great companies understand the difference between what should never change and what should be open for change, between what is genuinely sacred and what is not. This rare ability to manage continuity and change—requiring a consciously practiced discipline—is closely linked to the ability to develop a vision. Vision provides guidance about what core to preserve and what future to stimulate progress toward.
Collins and Porras divide their vision thing into two parts. One is the company’s core ideology, which is made up of its core values and core purpose. The other is its envisioned future, where one finds the famous “BHAGs” (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) that Collins and Porras first described in their book Built to Last, plus vivid descriptions of what it will look like when they’re reached.
Twitter’s mission statement is a pretty good on the core purpose, which Collins and Porras define as “the organization’s reason for being.” The strategy statement seems to be a groping, as-yet-incomplete attempt at defining a BHAG. What’s missing is any expression of the company’s core values. This seems about right for Twitter, which at the tender age of eight has already seen all its founders — the people most often responsible for giving a company durable values and vision — leave. And while Ev Williams and Jack Dorsey are still board members and significant shareholders, the sense one gets from Nick Bilton’s entertaining history of the company’s early days, Hatching Twitter, is that they never came close to agreeing on what the company’s core values should be.
This is a big challenge for Costolo, and a reason to fear that the company isletting its values be defined by its outside shareholders. It’s also a sign that the Collins-Porras framework actually can be helpful in figuring out where a company’s vision needs work.
Next up is Google, where co-founder and CEO Larry Page has decided that its mission statement (“to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”) needs to be expanded as the company moves from purely digital endeavors into the physical world. Google has pretty clearly expressed core values, although they have been greeted with a lot more skepticism in recent years as the company has grown into a global giant. But now it has to sort out its core purpose from its BHAGs. This may sound a little silly, but actually involves the crucial strategic question of what about Google should stay the same and what should change.
At Twitter, the question is whether it can groom its BHAGs and paint a vivid picture of what it will be like to achieve them, while at the same time deciding on some core values. And if that sounds a little silly, here’s what doesn’t: growing fast enough to keep its investors off its back while it figures all this stuff out.
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