Vision and Mission

Every day, everyone who goes to work has two unspoken questions in the back of their
mind: ”What should I do today?” and “How am I doing?” The second is to do with
performance management, feedback, coaching and so on but the first is easier to
answer if the organisation has a clear vision of the future and an explicit raison d’être.
Now, as you will find, I have some reservations about vision and mission statements but
they can be excellent tools in the right hands and used the right way. The trouble is that
they are frequently misused. Just as a two-metre length of rope can be either skipping
rope for a little girl or a garrotte for a murderer, a mission statement can inspire your
employees and customers or make you a laughing stock when it is chiselled into stone
and stuck up in reception.
For the moment, let’s assume that you are very clear about why your organisation exists
but you want to articulate it so your employees share your vision and understanding of
the core thinking behind your service or product. Where to start?
Firstly remember that a vision statement is a communication tool, not a quick fix way of
creating a strategy so make sure it makes business sense. It should tell you where your
strategy is taking you or what it will deliver if it works as planned.
Avoid the trite words that are brainstormed at away-days. Phrases like, ‘excellence
through quality.’ or ‘unparalleled customer service’ are meaningless tosh. In fact,
anything with the words, excellence, customer, quality and the like is very likely to be
A vision statement should paint a picture of the future that will help people look forward
to getting to work and getting to grips with making the vision come true. It needs to be
something that inspires the thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could really make that
happen’. And Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream…’. He didn’t say ‘I have a
strategic plan’. That’s what a vision is all about.
Although it is a personal thing, a vision that is not deeply shared will never be realised.
That means that it has to be discovered and articulated by the people who have to
breathe life into it every day. That takes time – probably months and quite possibly
years. Catchy words will emerge in the first few minutes but that is a dangerous trap. Far
better to let key decision makers and opinion-influencers work on their own and try to
record what they think is the organisation’s vision of its future before trying to arrive at a
consensus. If it needs half a page to express, that’s fine. Better a whole page of deeply
believed vision than one sentence of trite catch phrase that barely gets lip service. In
fact, arguably, organisations with true vision do not need vision or mission statements at
all. Their vision is woven into what they do, whom they hire and how they treat all the
stakeholders in the business. The sense of purpose is all-pervasive and actions speak
louder than words.
Mind you, now and again, someone does come up with a short phrase that says
everything necessary about a company’s vision or mission. Microsoft’s ‘a computer on
every desk and in every home’ tells us pretty succinctly what they aspire to. UPS’s
mission is to ‘deliver the package the very next day, regardless’. That tells employees
and customers alike what they are there to do. (Incidentally, if UPS merged with FedEx
would the new company be called ‘FedUp’?)
I suspect that many companies don’t need a mission statement. Despite all the hype
about learning organisations and knowledge workers of the future, there is still plenty of
scope for more traditional organisations. Factories that plan to make what they have
always made are likely to employ workers who do what they have always done. The
vision ‘to do tomorrow what we did yesterday’ doesn’t need recording. There are other
techniques to manage issues like cost, quality and productivity.
Martin Yallop