In one of my first start-ups we decided that we needed a mission statement. Something that we could post on the walls and write on whiteboards around the office. Something that would serve as a guiding light whenever we felt a temptation to drift off in new directions. Something that would motivate. Something short and sweet that would make us seem poetically succinct. Lots of companies have mission statements, so it should be relatively easy, right? Nope.
We blocked off two hours for our discussion. We had got the ball rolling by having everyone come to the meeting with a list of key terms that matter to them and symbolize the culture or objectives of the company. Creating the initial list was relatively easy: make customers happy. Build shareholder value. Empower employees. Be collaborative. And stuff like that. Then we put three letters on the board that pushed us into an extended tailspin. Those three letters:
F U N
Who knew that one word could be so controversial? Some of us, including me, felt like we should be able to combine strong commercial convictions with the word fun. So we split into two camps — the pragmatists and the idealists. The pragmatists kept focusing on the purpose of business — to earn money and to provide a return on investment for investors. The idealists kept trying to wrap the word fun around it.
After about three hours the pragmatists finally won. Despite the best intentions of the idealists among us, the truth is business isn’t about fun. It’s about making money. Investors may care about morale to the extent that it creates an environment within which people are energized to innovate, stay ahead of the competition and provide a healthy return on investment. In the end, we settled for a more common business word: “Rewarding”. It became our go-to term because easy to interpret on multiple levels. A reward can be many things. It can be money, career advancement, or interacting with talented colleagues. We all agreed that business could be rewarding, but steered clear of using a simple three letter word. We decided it would be too difficult to be fun.
Postscript: if you press Control-F and search for the word “fun” within the mission statements of the Fortune 500 companies, it doesn’t appear in any of them. But if you take the time to read some of these statements, they’re boring as hell and don’t do too much to inspire. Pragmatists don’t sing and dance and write songs.