The Napkin Test

Why it’s time to replace your company’s bulky mission statement with a vision concise enough to fit on the back of a napkin

by Carmine Gallo

The most exciting business ideas fit on the back of an airplane napkin. I’ve mentioned Cranium co-founder Richard Tait in previous columns (, 10/10/07), but his story is worth repeating. He told me that the idea behind his popular board game hit him on a cross-country plane trip. He and his wife had spent the weekend with friends who "dusted them" at Scrabble. Yet Tait and his wife were unbeaten at Pictionary. What if a game existed, he thought, that would give everyone who played it the chance to excel in one category or another in front of family and friends. His vision was simple: to create a game where everyone shines. Tait’s enthusiasm was so contagious that he attracted partners, employees, and investors like Starbucks (SBUX) Chairman Howard Schultz. But the vision itself was strikingly simple. So simple, it could fit on the back of a napkin.

A Vision Is Not a Mission Statement

Consistently delivering a simple, memorable, and concise vision can make the difference between a successful business and a failing business. Not a mission statement, but a vision. I’m about to suggest an idea that might stir up heated debate in offices across America but will guarantee to free up thousands of hours that can be applied to improving the business. Lose the mission statement. That’s right. Throw it out and throw out all of the meetings and e-mails that go along with it.

As a longtime communications coach, I have worked with thousands of top executives in a variety of industries. I’ve got news for you—nobody can repeat the mission statement. No one. A mission statement is a long, convoluted paragraph, typically arrived at by committee and destined to be tucked away in a desk and forgotten. A vision is different. A vision is a vivid image of a brighter future that can be articulated in 10 words or less. It is repeatable and consistent. A vision can fit on the back of a napkin.

Examples of Concise, Profound Visions

A top venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital once told me the most exciting business ideas can be articulated in one short sentence. He told me that when the Google (GOOG) guys, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, walked into the office, their vision for the company was simple, concise, profound, and memorable: "Google provides access to the world’s information in one click." (That’s 10 words, for those of you counting.)

One of my favorite visions is promoted regularly by Cisco (CSCO) Chief Executive Officer John Chambers: "Cisco changes the way we live, work, play and learn." The concise, memorable vision is repeated consistently in presentations, speeches, marketing materials, and the company’s Web site. If you do an Internet search for the terms "Cisco" and "live, work, play and learn," you will find more than 1 million links. Now that’s an effective vision.

One of my favorite examples of the power behind a great vision was told by Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer during a speech at Stanford University. Ballmer told the audience that six weeks after dropping out of Stanford to join Microsoft, he thought he had made a mistake. Bill Gates and his father took him out for drinks and said, "You don’t get it. You said you just joined to become the bookkeeper of a 30-person company. But we’re going to put a computer on every desk in every home." According to Ballmer, that vivid vision—a computer on every desk in every home—stuck for 17 years.

Here’s another. Several months ago, I had a conversation with Cold Stone Creamery (KAHL) former CEO Doug Ducey. Ducey ran the ice cream chain as it expanded from a small number of shops to become the 14th-largest franchisor in the nation. Ducey told me that in 1999, the company’s "goal" was to grow from what were then 74 stores to 1,000 stores in five years. A goal, however, is not inspiring. A vision is. Ducey’s vision was concise, specific, and emotional. Cold Stone would become "The ultimate ice cream experience." It worked because it was concise (five words), specific ("ice cream") and emotional ("experience").

A Winning Vision Is Consistent

Once you announce the vision, it’s critical that it be consistently communicated to employees, customers, and your other key audiences. That means within new business pitches, at staff meetings, during customer interactions, etc.

Management guru Marcus Buckingham has said a leader succeeds only when he or she makes people excited and confident in what comes next. I believe a great vision does so. Help others see the bright future that you see by crafting and delivering a vision so enticing the rest of us can’t help but follow.

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