How to prevent mission creep in your small business

Is the mission of your small business easily understood by your customer?

I ask this fundamental question because I’ve never met a small business owner or the leader of an organization who didn’t believe that their mission was clear, right on point and serving the needs of their customers. Yet, we know this can’t be the case for every business.

My own experience during the 15 years my family owned and operated a pizza restaurant is that it’s way too easy over time for your mission to expand and get muddled and confusing to your customer. This is because there is a healthy, natural bias in any enterprise to cultivate new ideas. Some of these ideas become new products or services. This bias toward action is even greater in entrepreneurs.

I think back to all those new product ideas that weren’t pizza we tried. To help drive lunch business, we added gourmet sandwiches, as well as specialty soups. We started offering chicken wings because our major competitors were. In the early years of our operation, we even leased a frozen yogurt machine to offer a dessert option. Products using pizza dough were constantly on and off the menu.

Yet, at the end of the day, our mission was making great tasting pizza in a fun family-friendly atmosphere — plain and simple. Adding more products simply made life more complicated for our employees and confused our customers. Our company slowly morphed into something it was not.

So, how do you prevent mission creep from happening to your business?

Follow the advice of William C. Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company Magazine.

He suggests you start with embracing an important idea from Claire Booth Luce, an author, U.S. congresswoman and ambassador. She offered some advice to President John F. Kennedy. She had grown concerned that Kennedy had too many priorities.

She told him, “‘A great man is one sentence. Abraham Lincoln’s sentence was: ‘He preserved the union and freed the slaves.’ Franklin Roosevelt’s was: ‘He lifted us out of a great depression and helped us win a world war.’”

Taylor believes Luce’s advice can be applied to a business. A “great business is a sentence.”

What is your mission in a sentence? It certainly focuses the mind to be able to share what your business is all about and what it stands for, in just a few words.

Next, once you have your sentence, there will likely be opportunities to prune some of what your business should not be focused on.

Take the business authors Tom Peters’ advice to create a “To-Don’t List.” Peters writes, “What you decide not to do is probably more important that what you decide to do. So, at the top of your ‘to-do’ list for today is to immediately beginning work on your ‘to-don’t’ list.”

Be aware that spending time to stop doing stuff will initially feel weird. We are so used to adding to our businesses not subtracting. It’ll also be a hard process because so few businesses ever make this part of their routine planning process.

Pat Sisneros is the Vice President of College Services at Everett Community College. Please send your comments to

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