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Mission to Mars: How to Define Core Purpose, Values and Behaviors to Unlock Performance

Mission to Mars: How to Define Core Purpose, Values and Behaviors to Unlock Performance

The Mission to Mars process is a powerful process that allows leaders to create absolute clarity and alignment for their organization and teams on these points: the company’s core Purpose: “Why we exist”; the Values they stand for; and Behaviors associated with each value that demonstrate it’s being lived.

This combination of Purpose, Values and Behaviors creates a “North Star” for everyone in the organization, and frees people up to make effective decisions in real time, without bureaucracy. This is highly motivating, and sets the organization up to attract and retain the very best people and deliver exceptional results.

Here’s how the Mission to Mars process works. (Note, while this can be carried out for an entire organization – as has been assumed in this article – it is equally effective when used at a departmental or even team level. A sub-group’s Purpose, Values and Behaviors don’t need to be identical to the overall organization’s, but they do need to broadly align with and support them.)

The Mission to Mars

Imagine your organization is setting up an office on Mars. This new division will represent the very best of what your organization has to offer: the best people, the best ideas, the best execution, all wrapped up in a brilliant culture that everyone is passionate about. Just imagine how successful and engaging that business would be, both for your people and for your customers!

Defining Your Purpose

The first step in setting up the Mars office is to be clear on Purpose. This is best done with a small group – usually the leadership team – because it is an intensive process that requires debate and word-play, as you settle on a single short statement that captures why your organization or team exists.

This should not be a generic statement, like “To provide great service to our customers.” It must cut to the heart of why everyone in the business turns up to work each day. It should be inspiring; the beacon that guides behavior and helps clarify difficult decisions. Here are some great examples:

  • Apple: “Put a ding in the universe”.
  • Squarespace empowers people with creative ideas to succeed.
  • Make-A-Wish International’s purpose is to grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength, and joy.

When your people are facing challenging situation, they should ask themselves, “Of all the options open to me in this situation, which one is best aligned with our Purpose?” This speeds up and improves decision making, and allows capable people to get on with the job, with minimal need for supervision or red tape. This is absolutely crucial in today’s world. Uri Levine, the founder of mapping start-up Waze that was bought by Google for US$966 million said this at a private lunch I attended, “The only bad decision is no decision. To win, you need to move fast, then course correct as needed.”

Clarity of Purpose helps make this happen. For more on the power of Purpose, watch Simon Sinek’s superb Ted Talk, Start with Why. I was recently co-creating a program at Google, and we were grappling with what content to include. Whenever we got stuck, we referred back to the question, “Why are we running this program in the first place? Why does it exist?” It was amazing just how clarifying that question was. It immediately helped us decide the way forward, and it can do the same for your organization, too.

Defining Values

If Purpose is an organization’s “why”, then values are its “how”. These are the two or three core principles that everyone in the business agrees to stand behind, not just when things are going well, but when they’re at their most challenging. Here is an effective structure for defining an organization’s  values. The process is key. Values have to be generated from within. People need to feel a sense of ownership around them. If they are “imposed” from the top down, they simply won’t stick.

If you are running a small or medium business, or if you run a team, you should invite everyone to be part of the Values definition process. For example, I’ve run this exercise with sixty people from an entire department in one room. For larger organizations, you should ask people to nominate colleagues to take part in the Mission to Mars exercise. Just like with NASA’s astronauts, they should be the best of the best; the folks that others look up to and/or respect. The team should include great people from up and down the hierarchy, including more junior employees who have a great attitude and are widely respected.

Values Definition Process

Here is how to define your organization’s values using the Mission to Mars process. The whole process (including behaviors) takes around half a day.

Get your Mission to Mars team together in a room, and divide them into small groups of four or five people. Share the Purpose that the leadership team has come up with, and that explain the objective of this session is to define the values and behaviors that will support that purpose.

Give each group a deck of “values cards” with one value listed per card. Explain that you are setting up a division on Mars that represents the very best of who you are as a business. Ask each table to select six values from the deck that represent this, and without which, the new venture on Mars simply could not succeed.

Once they’ve done this, challenge each group to narrow this down to just three values. This will be hard to do: we’re looking for the absolute core values that make your business what it is! Then, each group puts their three values up on a wall and explains to everyone else why they have those three values.

Finally, give every person 3 “gold star” stickers, and ask them to place those stickers next to the whichever value or values they feel best represent the organization. Generally, there are one or two values that most people agree on, and then another two or three that have widespread support. Do not settle! Challenge the whole group to debate these shortlisted values together, until everyone agrees on the three (or maximum four …but ideally three!) core ones that everyone is prepared to stand behind come rain, hail, or shine.

Defining Behaviors

Now that you have defined your values, you need to make them real, by agreeing how these would show up behaviorally. To do this, switch the groups around, and give each group one or two values.

Ask them to come up with specific behaviors that would clearly show whether or not that value was being “lived”. For example, if a core value was “Collaboration”, then an associated behavior might be “If we have an issue with someone, we address it with them directly. We don’t talk about it behind their backs.” When each table has come up with suggested behaviors for each value, have the group vote on these (individually), in the same way as before. Then as an entire group, debate, refine and ultimately select one or two behaviors for each value that clearly demonstrate whether or not that value was being adhered to.

Round out the Mission to Mars process by agreeing with the group how you are going to socialize and embed the Purpose, Values and Behaviors you have created.


The Mission to Mars process is a powerful way to gain clarity on why your organization exists, and then to define the core values and behaviors that will guide you along the way. Done well, this empowers everyone in the organization to make effective decisions, quickly, and work effectively with each other and your other stakeholders. It’s a powerful advantage in an uncertain and fast moving  world!

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by Revel Gordon // Revel Gordon is the outgoing Head of External Stakeholder Engagement, and a former Director of the ICF Australasia Charter Chapter, where he served on the Board for almost three years. He has left the ICF to focus his running successful coaching practice, Revel Gordon Pty Ltd with clients including Google, Atlassian and Novartis.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.