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.
Mission: 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.