The 'Only' statement: focus on your project's key goals

Published Thu, Jun 5, 2008 by Austin Govella. Updated Thu, Jun 5, 2008.

The myriad reasons mission statements suck has more to do with who put them together and why. Any time you explain your team’s shared vision in bite-size morsels anyone can consume, that’s what we call “a win”.

Although some mission statements explain your vision, they rarely explain why, or provide a convincing how. Tthe why and the how are what make your vision a signpost your team can strive for.

Introducing the Only statement

A couple of years ago, Marty Neumeier released a follow-up to the Brand Gap called Zag. It’s a great book. Although it might seem like a book about brand strategy, I thought it was more of an introduction to business analysis. (I posted a brief review of Zag in January.)

In Zag, Neumeier describes a great technique, the “only” statement (starting on page 65). An Only statement is like a mission statement except it focuses on what makes you unique. A mission statement might answer “what do we want to do?” The only statement answers “what do we do best?”

How it works

The concept starts simply enough. Complete this sentence: “You are the only [blank] that [blank].”

The first [blank] is for your category, and the second is for what makes you unique.

An example explains it better. Neumeier creates an Only statement for a fictional wine bar as an example: “Our brand is the ONLY chain of wine bars that builds community around wine education”.

Neumeier unpacks the magic:

Even with this simple statement you can see that there are three unique attributes that will set this brand apart: It’s a chain instead of a one-off; it’s about community, not just customers; and it’s built on education, not just enjoyment.


The Only statement as an exercise

The more detailed version of the Only statement exercise has you answer six questions:

WHATis your category?
HOWare you different?
WHOare your customers?
WHEREare they located?
WHENdo they need you?
WHYare you important?

For the wine bar, Neumeier provides these answers:

WHATThe ONLY chain of wine bars
HOWthat builds community around education
WHOfor men and women of drinking age
WHEREin cities and progressive towns in the US
WHYwho want to learn more about wine
WHEN|in an era of cultural awakening

As Neumeirer explains, answering these questions describes your category and how you’re different (the WHAT and HOW). It also describes who your audience is and where they are, as well as focuses “on a need state” (the WHY) as well as an underlying trend (the WHEN).

Using Only statements to validate design decisions

Neumeier’s goal is to help organizations find radical differentiation, so the Only statements focuses on your unique selling point. If you can focus your team on your project’s Only-ness, then feature decisions get easier.

When you want to add a new feature, run it by your Only statement. Does the new feature match up with your WHAT, HOW, WHO, WHERE, WHY, and WHEN? If you’re choosing between two features, which one is better? (Maybe neither?)

Using Only statements for shared vision

An Only statement is a really good way to focus a team on the project’s constraints (the WHAT, WHO, WHERE, and WHY), as well as on its strengths (the HOW and WHEN). This kind of focus is especially important on teams where shared vision drives the quality of the work (like an agile team).

It’s equally important to note the difference between sharing a vision and shared vision. Sharing a vision is when Kennedy says we’ll have a man on the moon in x years and everyone agrees: yes, we will try to put a man on the moon in x years.

Shared vision is more like a shared worldview. When Kennedy shares the vision that we’ll have a man on the moon in x years, everyone believes, yes, we can—and we should—have a man on the moon in x years. Only statements help communicate a worldview that a team can share.

Only statements in the wild?

As I was putting this together, I realized it’s a little abstract, so I’ll try to post an example using a real project. However, if you have an example we could use, let me know!