Strong companies have strong identities. Internally, their cultures act as a guiding framework for how to act and how to decide. Externally, their identity forms the basis for a consistent brand, and helps them attract customers with similar values.
Companies that get this right have a tremendous advantage. Think of Apple or Tesla, who have millions of extremely passionate customers. Part of that stems from the quality of their products, sure. But I would argue that a much bigger part of their popularity stems from how clear it is what they stand for, what they do, and why they do it. It is very clear what they think is important, and you either agree or you don’t.
I use these large companies as an example because they are so recognizable, but the principle works on a smaller scale as well. A strong identity is an extraordinary advantage for any company, especially when the external element of a recognizable brand works together with the internal element of a shared sense of what is important.
So how do you make this work for your company?
By laying the foundations for a strong identity, and getting your mission, vision and values aligned, and properly integrated into your company. Doing so will help you eliminate confusion and provide focus internally, making it easier to distinguish yourself from the competition externally.
Not just a waste of time
Most people can formulate a company mission when pressed, and even a generic mission is often good enough to keep a company going. In the creative industries, that’s usually a version of “make cool stuff”.
When it comes to vison and core values though, I’ve found that there’s often a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, who has time to daydream about far away futures when you don’t even know how long your current cash will last you. And aren’t core values just aspirational bullshit you put up on the wallls, while everyone in the company continues doing something different, or even the opposite?
Sadly, this is indeed the way some companies use vision and values. They define them, and then put them in a drawer – job done.
But this doesn’t mean that they can’t be valuable to you, if you use them right.
The way to a company identity that forms a strategic advantage is to be honest about your company’s mission, vision and value, and keep them at the core of what you do, and how you do it. If done right, they will form a solid foundation for your company culture, provide a guiding framework for important decisions, and make it easier to attract like-minded customers and partners.
The best model I’ve seen for framing and defining a company’s mission, vision and values comes from Jim Collins.
Based on years of research, Collins posits that great companies succeed in two things: preserving their core, and stimulating progress. A company’s core ideology is formed by its mission, or purpose, and its core values. Progress is stimulated by formulating an envisioned future; a vision for the company that is made concrete in the form of a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG), and vividly describes a world in which the company has successfuly attained that goal.
In Collins’s model, core ideology is made up of a company’s core values and core purpose. Core values are your organisation’s guiding principles, the things that you believe to be true and important above all else. A few things are important with regards to core values:
- Choose 3 to 5, no more. Choosing more values means you’re diluting the importance of each value, and that’s the opposite of what you want.
- Choose actual values, values that are held in the organisation and that inform actual behavior. Do not choose a list of aspirational values, as you will be effectively describing a different organisation.
- Core values should be intrinsic to your company and not dependent on external factors. In fact, values are only core values if you would continue to hold them even if te market would punish you for them.
Together, these values form a blueprint for your company’s identity. They solidify a shared sense of what is important, and how people should act.
Your core purpose is your mission, the reason your company exists. There’s a good reason that Simon Sinek suggests that building a strong company starts here, by defining your WHY. Having a strong purpose gives your people a shared cause to rally around, and a reason to get out of bed each morning to go to work. Your mission is not a goal–a mission is forever pursued, but never reached. It’s also not necessary for a mission to be excentric or unique. Companies can share the same mission, and go about fulfulling that mission in completely opposite ways.
If you need some pointers to define your mission, try the following. Start with a description of what you do and, borrowing a page from the Lean methodology, drill down with five “why’s” to get to the real reason your work matters. What core problem do you solve?
Collins suggests one more thought experiment to land on your core purpose, which he calls the Random Corporate Serial Killer. Imagine that someone buys your company for a price that all parties involved consider fair–whatever that price is. He guarantees job safety for all employees with the same or higher pay, just not necessarily in the same industry. He then completely kills the company. It’s gone, like it never existed in the first place.
Would you accept this offer? Why? And if not, why wouldn’t you? This will get you very close to the ideological reason for your company’s existence.
As you can hopefully see, defining your company’s core ideology is more a process of discovery than one of design or ideation. This isn’t a marketing tool; it should be as true a reflection as possible of who you are as a company and what you stand for. While you should aim to keep your core the same, that doesn’t mean that you will end up with a rigid company. By preserving your core, you create the freedom to change pretty much everything else about your company without losing its core identity.
In Collins’s model, a company vision consists of two main parts: a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal, and a vivid description of what it will look like to attain that goal. Your Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal, or BHAG for short, should be set 10 to 30 years in the future. Any closer, and your goal will likely become more operational than strategic or aspirational. It should also have about a 50-70% probability of success. You want to be reasonably sure you can make it happen if you work hard enough and make the right decisions, but it shouldn’t be sure thing.
When helping companies define their BHAG, Collins suggests that they use one of four broad BHAG categories: a target, a common enemy, a role model, or an internal transformation. See the worksheet below for some examples.
With your BHAG defined, it’s time to think about what it will look like to have reached that goal, and compliment it with a series of vivid descriptions. What will your company look like? How will people talk about you? What will have stayed thae same and what will have changed? The purpose of your vision is to inspire, and the more vivid you are able to describe your company’s future, the better it will be able to inspire a sense of ugency in your people, and keep them working towards the same goal.
Contrary to your mission, your BHAG can, and should be reached eventually. When you do, it is critical to define a new BHAG to keep momentum. Fail to do so, and you risk contracting what Collins calls “We’ve Arrived Syndrome”. This describes companies that have managed to reach their BHAG, and failed to set their sights for an even more ambitious goal. Instead, they lean back and allow their company to slow down and stall, losing their competitive advantage over time. Don’t be that company.
Collins has helpfully provided a template for uncovering your mission, vision and values, here.
I suggest you take a few afternoons with your team to see what you come up with. I guarantee that you will come out of it with a better sense of your company’s identity. Of course, most companies stop here, which is part of the reason these concepts get such a bad rap.
The REAL value comes from making these concepts a red thread throughout your company, and connect them to your strategic, tactical and operational processes. We’ll look at ways to do this in my next essay.
This essay by Martijn van Zwieten examines best-in-class business and strategy models, and adapts them for use by creative enterprises. Check out his first essay for a short introduction.
This article has originally been published on April 25, 2021 here.