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Beware False Mission

“The most important thing humanity has ever built” - Elizabeth Holmes on Theranos’s Technology

“Make the world more open and connected” - Facebook Mission pre-2017

“We contribute to human progress by empowering people to express themselves, live in the moment, learn about the world, and have fun together.” - Snap Inc. Investor Site

Tech companies have increasingly embraced inspiring and world changing mission statements. Be critical when companies — startups or big tech — pitch you grandiose visions of making the world better.

Even when these mission statements seem reasonable, they will be conveniently ignored when a company has to tradeoff growth or profitability. Any company's actual behavior is based on their metrics, incentive structure, and business model, not their mission statement.2

Be especially wary of false mission, where a feel good mission statement or slogan is at odds with the impact your products have.

Employees increasingly want an affirming social mission beyond just profits, leaving them susceptible to manipulation. Today’s tech management have become masters at pitching their job as world improving, while selectively ignoring issues.

Five years ago, a successful tech entrepreneur pitched me a purpose-driven business whose primary aim — he argued — was to reduce the price of loans for the needy. I had worked in international development and he knew I was attracted to this type of mission.

In reality, his plan was a social media stockade or scarlet letter, which would tweet/FB share to your friends when you hadn’t paid a loan on time. It might reduce the cost of loans, but it wasn’t his primary goal or a world that I wanted.

Facebook’s mission famously is to “make the world more open and connected.” But what if any social network built around friends naturally leads to in and out groups, encouraging deep segregation? What if any social network that maximizes engagement is using outrage and selective facts to increase its usage — and therefore draws the world further apart?

False mission is far beyond mission statements, but nods to the entire toolkit used to motivate workers in the 21st century. Stanford’s Professor Fred Turner critiques the slogans and art that so many tech companies use today:

“In the industrial era, a motto like ‘STAY FOCUSED AND KEEP SHIPPING’ would represent a straightforward professional exhortation: DO YOUR JOB. But set in the same type as a poster reading ‘WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WEREN’T AFRAID?’ and placed in the same sorts of locations, the corporate slogan can become an answer to a request for self-discovery.”
 
Posters at Facebook
(original images from Flickr and Confessions of a Book Geek)

At startup demo days, countless entrepreneurs will breathlessly cite how they’re changing the world. In reality, this is a mix of a motivating mission statement for these entrepreneurs, a message that media and investors latch onto, and a canny recruiting strategy when prospective employees have many options. Changing the world also isn’t the same as making the world better.

The mission may be vague or weak with high-sounding words, but little teeth in quarterly goals, incentives, or resources. Or the mission may be clear and energizing, but achieving it may have huge negative impacts that are selectively ignored inside a company. Management gets employee mindshare which lets them frame discussions and subtly cast their employees’ attitudes, which often goes unchallenged. And just because your coworkers are good people, doesn’t mean their work can’t have negative effects.

Here are some tips that can help:

  • Mission: Is the mission defined or vague? What negative consequences could achieving the mission lead to?
  • Metrics: Look at what gets measured, to see what gets changed and rewarded. Do the quarterly goals line up with the overall mission? Do big company decisions genuinely hinge on the mission?
  • Stories: Is your team cherry picking positive stories to share internally? What negative stories are they not sharing?
  • Impact: Understand the impact of your company's products, no matter how specialized your role. Look at other teams around you — not just your own — to see the effects your company has.

For company founders/executives, be wary of mission statements that have rather obvious flaws. Over time, having a false mission will attract the wrong candidates, hurt morale, and lead to greater attrition.


All opinions expressed are solely my own. feedback? drop a note to nemil at this domain




Footnotes

  1. Thanks to Shannon Spires: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17230584 ↩︎

Footnotes