Mission vs. Vision

I have often found myself in conversations with clients about the meaning and purpose of some of the most fundamental business terms — words like Mission, Vision, Strategy, and Values. It surprises me how often people on the same team have differing ideas about what these words mean, and how often I hear fuzzy thinking about these terms. The result can be significant mis-communication and mis-understandings about the direction of the organization. It is very hard to focus on what you cannot define.

I find that many leaders use mission and vision interchangeably, or think that the difference between them doesn’t matter much. Another related problem is mission and vision statements that are vague, lofty, or have little connection with the real work of the organization.

Let me suggest some definitions that have worked well and solve these problems. They are based on decades of strategy work with clients, as well as authors such as Collins & Porras (Built to Last), Steven Covey (Principle Centered Leadership), Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline), and Kaplan & Norton (Strategy Maps). Even a dictionary can be amazingly helpful.

Strategy PyramidMission: Enduring purpose. The fundamental reason for the organization’s existence beyond just making money. It is a direction, a general heading, a perpetual guiding star on the horizon. It does not change over time. It is generally abstract and can never be achieved, only pursued. For example, for NASA: “advancing man’s capability to explore the heavens”.

Vision: A picture of a desired future that supports the mission, or an image of the future we seek to create. It is a specific destination that is concrete and achievable. A good one engages people–it reaches out and grabs them in the gut. It should be tangible, energizing, highly focused. There can be many visions over time that support the mission. The time scale is usually around 1 to 5 years. For example: “a man on the moon by the end of the ’60s”.

Strategy: A set of actions or objectives around a unifying theme that work to accomplish a vision. It is broad and action-oriented. If vision is the what, strategy is the how. The time scale of the strategy is equal to or shorter than that of the vision it supports.

Objective: The object of a course of action, something specific that is worked toward. Good objectives should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound). The time scale is usually less than one year.

Goal: This term is probably the least consistently used of them all. Usually it is either used interchangeably with objectives, or denotes a lower-order or more specific objective. Sometimes it can be on the level of vision, as in a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).

Value: What’s really important to an organization. They are the essential and enduring tenets–a small set of general guiding principles, not to be compromised for financial gain or short-term expediency. Each value should be a piercing simplicity that provides substantial guidance to the members of the organization. They cannot be copied or dictated; they are what is authentically believed by the leaders of the organization. There should only be a few, between 3 and 6.

I think of Mission-Vision-Strategy-Objectives as a hierarchy from broadest to most specific. Values underlie them all.

Taken together, Mission, Vision, Strategy, and Values create a system of ideas forming the foundation of real leadership. They can become tools that allow people and organizations to shape their future. Setting direction and clearly communicating are core capacities for leaders.

In an organizational setting, we are impassioned by a goal that comes from a group of people working together to accomplish something that makes a positive difference in the world. On some level, we all know that there is something more important than money and what we can acquire or get for ourselves. When we look closely, we see that we all have a deep desire to contribute, to make a difference, and have an impact. When we acknowledge and define these desires, we create an opportunity to work from our passion to contribute rather than our desire to get for ourselves.

To be effective, Mission, Vision, Strategy, and Values need to be developed with large doses of dialog, communication, and collaboration to get the involvement and buy-in of people. Otherwise, they run the risk of being more management statements that don’t amount to much.

How does your organization define these terms?

I hope these suggestions help in your quest to define and communicate these critically important business ideas.

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12 Responses to Mission vs. Vision

  1. janna says:

    If you see the mission, vision, strategy -objectives as a heirarchy of broadest to most specific, then why isnt the traingle inverted to show that? It seems your graphic is in direct oposition to your words.

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  3. According to most of the experts on OD that I have read, the mission statement supports the vision but you seem to have it stated in reverse?

  4. Konrad says:

    I could have drawn the pyramid the other way around, with the most fundamental and broad element (mission) at the bottom. I chose this way to draw it because it mirrors how we think about organizations and strategic planning processes. The broadest, most fundamental decision-making tends to happen at the top, and more specific decisions are made lower down. So, it’s a top-down hierarchy of decisions. There is also a much larger quantity of the more specific decisions, which works well with the broadening of the graphic toward the bottom.

  5. kc says:

    Like M. Postilli above, all the research / work I’ve done in this area show the hierarchy going vision / mission / goals / objectives / strategy / tactics. Agree with values being the underlying aspect / foundation for the organization / culture.

    Either way, as long as all of the stakeholders agree to the definition things can get moving! It is the interminable time spent defining them that is counter-productive.

  6. Sanjay Swarup says:

    Even Steven Covey talks about taking the time to identify your Mission before you undertake any of your goals in life. I attest that Mission should be on top of the pyramid, and then all the subsequent layers should be how to go about achieving your mission.

  7. Way back in time, God created the Mission Statement- then a bunch of consultants wanting more attention than God began fighting over vision and mission, which is which, should it be a pie chart or pyramid, and if a pyramid, which way should it point and what should be at the point of the pyramid. While the consultants were arguing, God created quantum physics and parallel universes so everyone could do it their own way off in their own little worlds. Point is, what is important within an enterprise is to agree on what is what then plan and work the plan. In practice, in most companies, the work day is full of activities which should be bases on some strategy for goals to achieve objectives which should all be focused on achieving the mission. All activities should be judged as go or no go against the values. Achieving the mission should manifest, create in the material universe, the vision. In reality, to varying degrees and in my experience more so in not-for-profit enterprises but just as common in for-profits, much human activity is based on personal agendas to satisfy some degree of personality disorders and emotional immaturity of the actors, with no regard for the impact of the actions upon the mission. Stanton Royce, MBA, The Millionaire’s Coach®

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  9. farzana nadira says:

    to doing my study, i just keep in mind or, understand that-
    mission refers to your present condition to achieve your dream(in short it relates to your present condition).
    and vision refers to what is your dream(it is future related)

  10. Rob Dayton says:

    The pyramid and discussion are very help. Thank you Konrad and those that contributed. A group of government leaders were confused about mission and vision and were having trouble talking about our future because of these common terminology issues. The pyramid got them moving in unison. Perfect!

  11. Bed Prasad Dangi says:

    I found the definition clear. Thank you.

  12. Hi, Konrad! Excellent diagram!

    I think that between vision and strategy there should be a set of business goals. Vision is just an aggregated goal. I think it helps to motivate people, but some business goals with more details are needed before we go to the strategy.

    Another comment is about the Balanced Scorecard. I saw implementation where there in the BSC was mapped everything from values to action plans. Probably it is not exactly the N&K BSC.

    In the link field I’m sharing a link to my article about vision, goals, objectives, strategies. I’m curious to learn your opinion about my diagrams.

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