Hannah Moffatt: If your mission’s critical, make it concrete

What can a Welsh town teach you about rallying people behind your mission?

I recently visited a small town in Wales. It’s got a couple of pubs, a butcher’s and a handful of shops and houses. It might not sound like much, but every year thousands of people flock there from across the globe.

That town is Hay-on-Wye, home of the annual literary festival.

It hasn’t always been so popular (the festival’s been going since 1988). When I was there, I couldn’t help thinking about how it all began. Is there something in an everyday town’s rise to international-literary-superstar status we can learn from when motivating teams at work?

Hay-on-Wye’s story started with Richard Booth – a man on a mission to make Hay ‘the world’s first book town.Here are three ways you can take a (metaphorical) leaf from his book.

1. His mission was concrete – making it easy to picture and work towards

You hear ‘create the world’s first book townonce and you have a pretty good idea what it means and, importantly, how you might work towards it. Bring in the books, bookshops and people to market them and you’re halfway there.

Yet plenty of businesses don’t have this clarity. Instead of making their missions practical they write them in lofty, abstract language – making it so much harder for HR teams to bring them to life.

Take the serviced office business, WeWork. Their mission is ‘to elevate the world’s consciousness’. It might sound impressive, but I’m not convinced that’s what the business really does. That isn’t a criticism of WeWork. My office is in a WeWork and I love it. The facilities are great; I’m surrounded by other budding start-ups and ideas are as free-flowing as the Prosecco tap. But do I feel like my consciousness is being elevated when I’m working there? No. My guess is WeWork’s HR team don’t measure people on their ability to ‘elevate consciousness’ at interview either – although I’d love to be a fly on the wall if they did.

All too often, businesses feel the need to ‘dumb up’ – to make simple ideas sound lofty and complicated. Or, worse still, they aren’t sure what their mission should be, so they fudge it with waffle and buzzwords – disrupting, value-adding, agile. That kind of mission doesn’t help anyone. In fact, behavioural scientists would tell you it isn’t even believable. Or rather, we’re much more likely to believe in a concrete idea we can picture. Which makes sense. It’s hard to get teams motivated by a mission no one understands.

2. It puts its money where its mouth is – he backs up his ideas with actions

The other reason Richard Booth’s mission worked was that it didn’t just sound concrete, it was concrete. In turning Hay’s old fire station into a second-hand bookshop, Booth showed the town he meant what he said. He’d taken his first step towards making Hay the bookshop town he’d imagined.

You don’t need a physical shop to show a mission in action, though. Look at Google. You’ve probably heard their mission statement a million times before: Organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. People always talk about it because it feels so true to the business.

Like Booth with his first bookshop, Google’s been finding ways to organise data from the start. And, as a mission, it’s even more effective because it doesn’t have a natural endpoint. There will always be more information and more people who want to access it. So, Google’s teams always have a clear job to do.

3. It lends itself to objectives and behaviours – so others can get behind it

Now, I doubt Richard Booth roamed the streets of Hay, setting objectives and appraisals for the locals (although he was known for being quite the eccentric, so it’s always possible). Nonetheless, there are stories to suggest that his energy and mission inspired other second-hand bookshops to open in the town. (I visited 17 when I was there.)

People knew and got behind Booth’s mission and found their way to play a part – whether opening bookshops, B&Bs, cafes or, later, the festival itself. One bookshop assistant told me, “When I grew up here, you couldn’t even get a coffee. Now people visit from all over the world.” You could still feel that energy and excitement amongst the locals, even though the festival is now decades old.

Back in the business world, an organisation that’s mastered the art of using a mission to set objectives is crowd funding site, Kickstarter. Their mission is to help bring creative projects to life. It sums up what the company does and influences the way their people behave. In fact, Kickstarter’s website explains that they measure how well the company is doing by looking at how well they’re living up to that mission, not the size of their profits. It’s a great example of what a mission should be. It’s a big, concrete idea that lends itself to setting objectives and changing behaviour. And that makes it something special – a mission everyone can be part of.

Is your company mission pulling its weight?

You might not set your company mission, but you can certainly challenge it. To help you decide whether your mission needs more work, ask yourself these questions:

  • How do you feel when you hear it? (If you’re bored or confused others will be too.)
  • Would someone who hasn’t joined the company understand it?
  • Can I picture how people in different roles might work towards it?
  • Can I measure someone’s performance, or the whole company’s performance against it?






Hannah Moffatt is a creative director at language and behavioural science consultancy, Schwa. Their mission is to change the way the world thinks and behaves.