Rework

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Mission statements are horrible. Don't write them!

Show Notes

Last episode we discussed how important it is to stand for something and you'd think writing your values down in a mission statement would be a great way to let people know exactly what you stand for. Well, you'd be wrong. Mission statements are almost always vapid, boring, platitudes that end up saying nothing at all. Even worse, they often turn people away entirely!

Show Notes

What is Rework?

A podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. In Season 2, we're going through Rework (the book) chapter by chapter and talking with authors, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, about what's changed in the world of business over the last eleven years since the book was published.

Shaun: [00:00:00] Let me close this.

David: [00:00:00] Man, my background is awesome right now. It really looks like I'm floating head in space.

Shaun: [00:00:06] Yeah.

Jason: [00:00:09] You know that Lex Fridman guy.

Shaun: [00:00:10] Oh yeah.

David: [00:00:09] Oh yeah, sure.

Jason: [00:00:11] He always does black backgrounds like that. It's very ominous.

David: [00:00:13] Right.

Shaun: [00:00:13] Yeah, it's weird.

David: [00:00:15] I haven't actually listened to his stuff very much.

Jason: [00:00:17] You listen to it.

Shaun: [00:00:17] We’re not here to promote other people's podcasts, okay?

[00:00:19] Broken By Design by Clipart plays.

Shaun: [00:00:19] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I'm your host, Shaun Hildner. This week, we're talking about mission statements and well, quite frankly, we're talking about why they're horrible.

[00:00:33] On the last episode, we talked about the importance of standing for something and you'd think a great way to let people know what your values are, would be to write them down in a mission statement. However, these exercises usually just produce a few meaningless paragraphs of platitudes, and actually work against what you're trying to accomplish by writing them in the first place.

[00:00:52] As always, I'm joined by Basecamp's co founders and the authors of Rework, David Heinemeier Hansson, how are you?

David: [00:00:56] I am good. Shaun, how are you?

Shaun: [00:00:58] Wonderful. And Jason Fried, how are you?

Jason: [00:01:01] I'm doing great. Thanks, Shaun.

Shaun: [00:01:03] This week, we're talking about mission statements. And this kind of coincides with what we talked about last week about drawing a line in the sand and how important it is to stand for something, and how important it is to let your audience know what you stand for. So maybe you could lay out what's the problem with mission statements?

Jason: [00:01:20] I can only tell you that every time I read one, it's cringe-worthy. I don't know. I just… something about them. They don't feel like they jive with reality. They're very much written in a vacuum, sort of this utopian vacuum of what you think you are and what you think you're doing what you think you should be. And they just, they sound very grandiose and… I don't know. I mean, I'm sure there's a good one out there somewhere. I haven't run into one personally.

David: [00:01:43] I think the problem is most of the time, they're not in opposition to anything, all the statements are free, because no one would take the other side. Then you're just plucking out of a list of platitudes. People are the most important asset we have. Okay. Sure. I guess? The customer is at the center of what we do. Like, where else would they be? Like if you were saying the opposite of that, like, “Do you know what, our machines are the most important things. Humans come second.” I'd be like, do you know what at least you're saying something? I didn't know if that's the right thing to say, doesn't quite sound like it. But there's something to it that's interesting. Or if you said like, “Hey, our customers are on the periphery of what we do. What we do best is bake bread. That's what we care about.”

[00:02:28] And then… this was one of the reasons why of all the episodes of Seinfeld that I can remember there's only really one that stands out and it's the Soup Nazi.

Shaun: [00:02:37] Sure.

David: [00:02:38] It's like Soup Nazi had a mission statement that was worth something right? I made some damn good soup, and you are privileged to be able to buy it. And if you're, I forget why they got kicked out of the store. But you're like, there's something there. You're standing for something that's not free. You're literally turning away customers, kicking them out of your store if they don't sort of fill up with that, right? Versus mission statements, it's just the opposite.

[00:03:03] And so much of it feels formulaic because it is. There are literally books you can go buy that's like How to Write a Mission Statement.

Shaun: [00:03:10] Right.

David: [00:03:11] Like How to Write a Business Plan. I remember reading a how to write a business plan book and you go like it's very formulaic. Oh, you write this section and it says this bullshit and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, right?

[00:03:22] We spoke about projections on a former episode where I remember having that sense of just pulling shit out of my ass, right? Like, this is what you're supposed to do. The hockey stick is supposed to look like this.

Shaun: [00:03:31] Right.

David: [00:03:32] Can you formulaicly come up with, I don't know, a hit song or a awesome novel or a great movie or whatever? Not really. Because if you could, you could just hit play on that and you just be spewing out hits and spewing out bestsellers and spewing out blockbusters. That's not happening.

Jason: [00:03:51] Speaking of inconsistencies, the other thing that's weird about them is that mission statements feel like they're supposed to be sort of the I don't know, like the soul of the business, but they're so sterile.

Shaun: [00:04:01] Yeah.

Jason: [00:04:01] And they're so predictable, that there's nothing soulful about them. What we did when we launched 37signals back in ‘99, is we essentially kind of wrote a mission statement by taking 37 positions on random ideas about the industry.

Shaun: [00:04:18] Those are still up. We'll link to those.

Jason: [00:04:19] Yeah, I mean, in some way… It wasn't ever intended to be a mission statement, but as I'm thinking about it, it was basically laying out like, here's what we think here's what we believe. But without saying it in a concise paragraph that’s very formulaic.

Shaun: [00:04:33] Can your business's values, anyone's business's values be distilled, distilled down. Not many people have the time or energy to write multiple books laying out their values?

Jason: [00:04:43] Sure. I'm sure. I think the simpler the business, the easier would probably be to do but yeah, I mean. Actually, I'm more interested. I think that the real sort of the telling statement for a lot of businesses is if they have a really good tagline. I've always liked taglines.

Shaun: [00:05:00] Sure.

Jason: [00:05:00] Like I've always liked FedEx’s tagline or I don't know if they still using it, but it's like, “If you absolutely positively need to get it there tomorrow.” Or something like that. Like, that's really what FedEx does, actually. It's probably the best distillation of what they do, then I'm sure their mission statement is very flowery about, again, about people and about process and about quality. And I mean, it's all those things, but really, the tagline is really what they're all about.

David: [00:05:25] The funny thing about mission statements is we've kind of tried the exercise a couple of times at Basecamp.

Shaun: [00:05:30] Oh, really?

David: [00:05:31] Getting… not a mission statement, per se. But can we boil down what we actually stand for and believe in into eight points? In fact, right now, the Basecamp handbook has something I think called values, which is essentially a form of a mission statement. And I think there's like eight points in there. I can't remember what they are. I'm sure they sound nice.

[00:05:53] But the fact is that trying to distill, like, what do you stand for in a way that can drive decisions is incredibly hard. So hard that even this gang of long-term writers have not been able to do it. What we have been able to do is write literally hundreds of essays that take strong positions in narrow fields where you can get a sense of what we're about without boiling that sense down to a slogan. Because that's hard to the point of almost impossible. That business is, like we stand for so many things, right?

[00:06:30] This was one of the reasons when we did these exercises, that remember, when we did this values page in the handbook, I was like, eight? Like, how am I supposed to pick eight, like, I believe, maybe 1500 things. Boiling that down to eight things that are really above all the other 400 and whatever? That seems interesting, because like, what is the context? When do these things apply? At any one point when we're trying to deal with privacy, for example, there's a whole canon of positions that we've taken that will matter far more than these flowery, abstract, very high level positions that we've taken. Versus many of the things, in fact, most of the things that we write are very concrete, they're very practical, which is the opposite of what mission statements usually are. The more abstract they are, the more watered down they are, the better.

[00:07:20] Which brings one funny… I'm sure we'll get to this chapter. And it was something about what you're supposed to do. Watching the waves break and adjust accordingly. Like that is something that's so close to mission statement language that it’s always just annoyed me. It's probably one of the sentences in the book I dislike the most. And why I dislike it so much is because it is one of the favorite sentences of a bunch of people who read the book. And I'm like, fuck, really?

Shaun: [00:07:47] It makes a good tweet. It's quotable.

David: [00:07:48] Exactly, it's quotable. But it means nothing.

Shaun: [00:07:51] Right.

David: [00:07:51] Who is going to take the opposite side of watch the waves break and adjust accordingly? And I find this all the time on interviews as well. That people are very eager to boil down a long discussion into a single line that fucking doesn't mean anything. It is like you can settle any argument with like, yeah, I guess that depends. Yeah, no shit it depends. Everything fucking depends. What does that mean? Did we progress anything? Did we learn anything? Are we more informed here? No, we're not. Just like, watch the waves and fucking adjust accordingly. Right? Who would not adjust accordingly?

[00:08:30] So yeah, I mean, we're prone to do it ourselves. This is what I wanted to say.

Shaun: [00:08:35] Of course.

David: [00:08:35] Like anytime that we try to boil it down, you run extremely high risk, if not almost a guarantee that you end up in this watery, means nothing, feels good for a second, I can't even remember it after two moments.

Shaun: [00:08:49] Is it important to have a value stated that can be disagreed with? So I think what you're kind of saying was one of the things that bugs you about these mission statements is that no one would disagree with any part.

David: [00:09:01] I just don't think they have value unless they are trading something off. If everyone in the world would agree with these sentences you've picked out? I mean, you've just picked out some nice sentences. And that's really at the core of your mission? Really? Like that's the most important thing? That's the thing that's supposed to be your guiding light here? A thing that no one would disagree with any of the sentences, and that you could swap these eight out with another eight, and no one would give a fuck because it just doesn't matter because it doesn't actually drive anything. This is why it is difficult. I mean, I get, I buy, even, the theory that if you could, if you could really distill your missions down into eight lines, and they could really drive behavior and so on. Yeah, that sounds valuable. Never ever seen it.

Jason: [00:09:49] This is also why I don't like elevator pitches. It's the same thing. It's like, when are you only going to have 15 seconds to explain your whole business to somebody in a way that really matters? It's just, it's an unrealistic thing to even have to write or listen to or absorb.

Shaun: [00:10:05] This was years of my life in film school of being taught how to craft an elevator pitch, because sometime you'll be in a elevator with a producer. It's never happened.

Jason: [00:10:15] Yeah, yeah. So I think the other thing is that the word mission is a pretty heavy word. It's like, why are you here on this planet? Well, you're not here on this planet for the reasons you write in your mission statement, probably. Because there's an incongruency with the gravity of the concept. And then what people write down. Now again, is that a failure of the mission statements? Or is that a failure of like people's imagination to write one? I don't know. But I don't think it really does anything.

David: [00:10:42] I'll go further there. I think—

Jason: [00:10:44] Okay.

Shaun: [00:10:44] Of course you will. Of course you will.

David: [00:10:46] [crosstalk] mission statement. Because, do you know what? If you never seen a successful application of a concept, it's not everyone else that's broken, it’s the fucking concept. Right?

Shaun: [00:10:53] Right.

David: [00:10:54] Like if we were like, you know what, like, a good third of mission statements really hit the spot. And like, there's two thirds that could learn something from the one third, right? But we're like, I literally can never in my entire life remember a single mission statement I've ever read where I went away? Wow, that was profound. Jesus, they really nailed it there. And I think part of the problem too, is like, who's the mission statement for? Well, everyone. Everyone who works here? Everyone who might want to work here? Everyone who buys from us?

Shaun: [00:11:22] The lowest common denominator.

David: [00:11:24] Exactly.

Shaun: [00:11:25] Yeah.

David: [00:11:25] Exactly. The mission statement, for it to mean something, it has to, in my idealized perception of a mission statement that actually mattered has to run the risk that it might turn some people off.

Shaun: [00:11:38] Yep.

David: [00:11:39] And I've never ever read a mission statement that would turn anyone off.

Shaun: [00:11:43] Do either of you have the book in front of you by any chance?

David: [00:11:45] Yes.

Shaun: [00:11:45] Would you mind reading this excerpt from the Enterprise Rent-A-Car mission statement on page 47?

David: [00:11:53] This is the one about imagine you're standing in a rental car office?

Shaun: [00:11:56] I think it's just a really great example of exactly what you guys are talking about, these platitudes.

David: [00:12:02] Yeah. So I really like the setup here. Because this was exactly what I had in my mind when we were writing this.

Shaun: [00:12:08] It seems very specific What happened to you, David.

David: [00:12:12] I think this is a real example. And it may just be something I'm imagining, but I was imagining it so vividly that it might as well be real.

Shaun: [00:12:18] Sure.

David: [00:12:19] So it begins like this. Imagine you're standing in a rental car office. The room’s cold, carpet’s dirty, there's no one at the counter. And then you see a tattered piece of paper with some clipart at the top of it pinned to a bulletin board. It's a mission statement. “Our mission is to fulfill the automotive and commercial truck rental, leasing, car sales, and related needs for our customers, and in doing so exceed their expectations for service, quality, and value. We strive to earn our customers’ long-term loyalty by working to deliver more than promised, being honest and fair, and going the extra mile to provide exceptional personalized service that creates a pleasing business experience.”

[00:13:05] Blah, blah, blah, right? It just goes on from there.

Shaun: [00:13:08] Yep.

David: [00:13:08] Actually, now that it is coming to mind, this sense of seeing, it didn't say as much. Like, the actual inspired case here. But it was a rental office, and it was a piece of clipart. And it was on the side of the sort of the wall. And the fucking picture, I kid you not, was also a little bit crooked. I mean like, this is just perfect. It just summarizes everything about this.

Shaun: [00:13:31] This commitment to quality, absolutely.

David: [00:13:32] Yeah, exactly.

Shaun: [00:13:34] The attention to detail.

David: [00:13:34] And that's what actually makes a mission statement worth less than nothing. That is actively harmful. When you read bullshit like this, and you have an experience that is in such contrast to what's being stated you're like, not only are these people don't care that much, they're full of shit.

Shaun: [00:13:52] Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line for another half an hour.

David: [00:13:56] That's the thing. You're trying to say something that's not offensive and you end up being the most offensive of all. You're full of shit. You are full of shit. This doesn't mean anything and by you stating it, you're just pissing me off.

Jason: [00:14:11] You know, this is one of those things that a long line of corporate details everybody sees and everyone knows are ridiculous, like, including some job titles. Sometimes you'll be on the phone. And it's like, you know, please wait on hold for the “customer quality assurance advocate.” What does that even mean? And it's a similar thing. It's just these labels applied to things and these words that in a dictionary sound good and have meaning. But then they're assembled like Legos into something that you don't recognize and doesn't have any meaning. And it's just, it’s all a long line of the same issues.

David: [00:14:50] Recently I've been on this kick of trying to find out why are the traditions of the ways we do the things we do. Like what is actually the upside here? What could possibly lie behind fact that we've just talked for a while now about the fact that how all these mission statements are total bullshit, we've never seen a good one. There must be something. Now I'm actually, I'm more curious than I was when we wrote that essay where I was just angry about the fact that this was such bullshit. Now, I'm actually curious. There's got to be something of value here. There's perhaps like a meta-narrative here that goes like, do you know what? The fact that we are so blunt about how everything is bullshit sets a tone that like, we both know it's bullshit, and maybe that eases business somehow, because so much business is bullshit. And if we're like, wink, wink, nudge, nudge up front about it, maybe it glides down more easily or so? I don't know. But I’m like, there's got to be some long running reason for this because you would think otherwise, it would just have been discarded. Right?

Shaun: [00:15:49] Right.

David: [00:15:51] Like, what is this serving? Who is the serving? In what circumstances? This is a good mystery that I've never actually seen an explanation for.

Jason: [00:15:57] I think it all points back to ego, ultimately. This notion that like we get to write what we want to be, and what we think we are.

Shaun: [00:16:05] Sure.

Jason: [00:16:05] And it makes us feel good about ourselves.

Shaun: [00:16:07] Yeah.

Jason: [00:16:08] hat's what I think it really ultimately is.

Shaun: [00:16:11] Yeah.

David: [00:16:11] But that, to me, implies just a sense of mass delusion, right?

Jason: [00:16:17] Well, yeah.

David: [00:16:17] Like, you write this thing that you think sounds good, even though everyone knows it's fucking bullshit. Even like, you don't have to be a scholar to parse this thing. And like, oh, actually it’s bullshit if you analyze it five days. No, no, it's just bullshit on its face.

Shaun: [00:16:31] It maybe just feels good to write for the person writing it. And that's it. That's all it's for.

Jason: [00:16:36] It feels like a very academic exercise that makes people feel good about themselves, that there's no risk. I think, David, to your point about no tradeoffs, there's no risk either.

David: [00:16:43] Right, but then why are we even why are we doing it?

Jason: [00:16:45] Well, yeah. I don't know, but I feel like it's this thing we can all rally around and feel good about ourselves and feel like we're making progress on something early before we have anything else to do.

Shaun: [00:16:56] Yeah.

Jason: [00:16:58] Like you don't you don't write your mission statement last, you do it first. And it's like, this is what we're all here for. And it's, but yeah, I know, I'm with you.

Shaun: [00:17:04] Well, you say there's no risk. But David, I think you were kind of saying the opposite.

Jason: [00:17:08] There actually is a risk, you’re right?

Shaun: [00:17:10] Is it better to say nothing? If you don't have the time to write 75 Essays in a book?

David: [00:17:14] Yes, yes. Just shut the fuck up and create a good product or service and sell it.

Jason: [00:17:18] Make the thing. Yeah.

David: [00:17:19] This is the thing, too. When you go with the with the mission here, right? It will be evident. Do you actually care about the person who's on hold? Right? Like, it'll be evident in the processes you set up, your response times, all these other things, right? If there's someone actually fucking behind the counter, who can help me at the rental car company, they'll tell me, okay, they care. And if there's not, and it's nasty, and dirty, and the cars always, whatever, don't even get me started on fucking rental cars in the US—

Shaun: [00:17:47] It’s my job to get you started on rental cars in the US, by the way.

David: [00:17:51] You go to a rental car office, right? And you're like, I get a car. This happens so many times. And you can tell it was just washed. But it ended up worse than being dirty. This is one of the things just amazes me about the fact, like you wash it off, and then you leave it out to dry so just has water spots all over everything to the point you can't see anything at all.

[00:18:11] Anyway, this idea that like if you actually cared about the ultimate customer experience, maybe you’d just fucking wash the car. And I'd walk up to the car, and it'd be clean and I'd go like, wow. I mean, I didn't expect this, you are better than the competition, you care more about the base product that you're offering.

[00:18:29] Which gets perhaps to the other point here is like, why is this so grandiose? Can’t you just be a goddamn company that makes a fucking widget? Or provides a service? And that's enough? You also have these aspirations of missions that saves the world? Why? Why does it have to be so grandiose? When so much business is not grandiose at all? And maybe that is the explanation of why we write these things is because perhaps a lot of people can't just deal with the fact that you know what, I rent out dirty cars. That the business we’re in.

Shaun: [00:19:05] You know, the car runs the same whether it's dirty or clean, right?

David: [00:19:08] Exactly. And that perhaps sounds depressing. And then a mission statement about pleasing customer experiences somehow gives meaning to life in some abstract, bullshit, self-denying way. I don't know.

Jason: [00:19:22] I’ll just say that the rental car mantra should just be like, “You need a car. We've got a car.’ That's it.

David: [00:19:27] Bingo. This is the thing that amazes me. Because when you consider slogans like that, which is actually not that far from the FedEx one you just called out that’s really good.

Jason: [00:19:36] Right. Yeah, yeah.

David: [00:19:37] When you peel off all the bullshit and just say what it is that somehow feels rebellious. Like a company that would dare say, hey, “You need a car. We got a car.” Actually. I don’t know why I just remembered about this. But I was just watching this clip again about Seinfeld. And he shows up to a rental car counter, right? And he's like, “I have a reservation for a car.” And they say, “Well, we don't actually have that car.” He's like, “What do you mean? I have a reservation.” “Well, I understand, sir. But we're out of cars.” He’s like, “I don't think you know what the word reservation means. It means you put a car aside for me by the time I show up.”

[00:20:13] And you're like, if you boil it down to just those basics. I need a car and you have a car. That is a rebellious act in an age of bullshit, to simply just tell it straight and not need to wrap it in layers and cake of nonsense.

Shaun: [00:20:29] Have you ever tried to write a tagline for either Basecamp or HEY?

Jason: [00:20:34] I think we've had a variety of them over the years. But I don't think they've ever been like under the logo, you know, which is where a tagline typically goes.

Shaun: [00:20:41] Yeah of course. Of course.

Jason: [00:20:41] But I think it's a fun exercise to think about how to cleverly explain something, but that's more of a creative exploration than it is like a necessity.

Shaun: [00:20:51] Right.

Jason: [00:20:51] You know?

Shaun: [00:20:53] When starting a business don't start with the tagline is what you're saying?

Jason: [00:20:56] Yeah, I mean, it's fun. I like coming up with taglines for other businesses.

Shaun: [00:20:59] Sure.

Jason: [00:20:59] I don't like coming up with them for my own. I think it's fun to think about, like, how do you really distill other people's businesses?

Shaun: [00:21:04] Mm-hmm.

Jason: [00:21:05] But anyway, I don't I don't know if we've ever really had one.

David: [00:21:09] Do you know what, I think that's the essence. You shouldn't write your own tagline, you should ask the most disinterested customer to write it for you. What do you do here? As Jason would say, like if he was going to tagline someone else's rental car business. He'd be like, “You need a car. We’ve got a car.”

Jason: [00:21:24] Yeah, there you go. I remember also, when we did these jobs we've done interviews, a handful of years ago. One of the big takeaways with Basecamp was that it was used to cover people's asses. This idea that Basecamp covers your ass, really resonated. We didn't come up with it, like people kept saying it. It’s basically a client situation. You know, the client asked for this. They said they didn't ask for it. But I have it on the record. It covers my ass. And it's like, that wouldn't like really be a tagline for Basecamp. But I like how someone else like, that's what it meant to them.

Shaun: [00:21:53] Right.

Jason: [00:21:55] But they're also they can be inspirational. Just do it, of course, is a very inspirational one. I don't think like, Tesla doesn't have one and Apple doesn't have one. And there's a lot of companies that don't have one. You don't need one.

Shaun: [00:22:06] Yeah, that's an interesting exercise. That'd be fun to explore.

Jason: [00:22:08] It’s fun to play with it, but I don't think it matters.

David: [00:22:11] Do you know what's interesting, though, is I have this sense that when we wrote this essay, mission statements were more of a thing. Because I'm trying to remember, have I read a mission statement lately? Has that been something that companies have been promoting? And I feel like it's less of a thing. Maybe they're just burying it down on their corporate website next to whatever bullshit no one else is reading anyway.

Jason: [00:22:32] I think they’re called values now. I think that's what people have sort of transitioned to. Like, corporate values.

David: [00:22:38] Yeah, that's true, perhaps.

Jason: [00:22:39] And that is everywhere.

Shaun: [00:22:40] I’m sure it’s still taught in business school.

Jason: [00:22:43] Yeah. Yeah.

Shaun: [00:22:43] Cool. Well, I think this is a this is a pretty good place to end.

[00:22:46] Next week. We are talking probably the first of very many episodes about taking outside money. So I hope to see both of you next week. Thank you, Jason Fried.

Jason: [00:22:58] Thanks, Shaun.

Shaun: [00:22:58] And thank you David Heinemeier Hansson.

David: [00:23:00] All right.

Shaun: [00:23:03] Bye.

[00:23:06] Broken By Design by Clipart plays.

Shaun: [00:23:08] Rework is a production of Basecamp. Our theme music is by Clip Art. We're on the web at rework.fm, where you can find show notes and transcripts for this and every episode of Rework. We're also on Twitter at @reworkpodcast.

[00:23:22] If you're following along with the book, next week, we'll be discussing the chapter, “Outside money is plan Z.”

[00:23:27] If you like the show, I'd really appreciate it if you would leave a review on Apple podcasts. And if you have any comments or questions for Jason or David, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850. Or better yet, record a voice memo on your phone and email it to hello@rework.fm.

Seinfeld clip: [00:24:01] George: Medium turkey chili.
Jerry: Medium crab bisque.
[Paper bag rustles.]
George: We didn't get any bread.
Jerry: Just forget it. Let it go.
George: Excuse me, I think you forgot my bread.
Soup Nazi: Bread $2 extra.
George: $2? But everyone in front of me got free bread.
Soup Nazi: You want bread?
George: Yes please.
Soup Nazi: $3!
George: What?
Soup Nazi: No soup for you!