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The Promise and Peril of Mission and Vision

December 18, 1999
Related Topics: Vision, Strategic Planning, Featured Article
A compelling mission and vision can work miracles in an organization. That's the good news. The bad news is that their potential is often limited because of how they're developed and used. As a part of my ongoing series on meaningful workplaces, let me weigh in with my thoughts.

First, there is a critically important difference between these two key ingredients of an effective organization. A recent study conducted by the American Association of People Who Don't Mind and In Fact Advocate Long-Windedness in Their Communications showed that the typical mission statement includes two semicolons, two dashes, and at least two business buzzwords -- while the vision statement contains only one dash but makes up for it with at least one run-on sentence.

To be at all credible, a company's mission and vision statements combined must include at least five of the following terms and phrases:

  • high performance
  • world class
  • diversity
  • empowerment
  • employees are our most important asset
  • exceeds
  • delight(s)
  • right the first time
  • everyone's job
  • puts people first
  • puts the customer first
  • puts employee bonuses first

Of course, examples are the best way to convey these important guidelines. Here is what the little-known Anon Company* came up with after spending eight hours in a hotel meeting room, during which the organization's 35 employees consumed 102 donuts, 90 cups of coffee, 68 soft drinks (including 24 cans of Jolt Cola), 35 boxed lunches, and countless peppermint candies:

Our mission is to develop a high-performance mission statement -- one that puts the customer first, puts employees first, and does it right the first time in a way that delights anyone who had concerns that this mission statement would actually mean something; in order to show that employees can exceed expectations for how much unhealthy food they can consume during a single work day; and so we can get out of this damn hotel room with its thermostat that we can't control and end this madness an hour early.

This mission statement clearly conveys that the employees of Anon are bold risk-takers, as demonstrated by their brazen abuse of their high-performance gastrointestinal systems. The employees also show a command of key business terms, particularly those words and phrases that have had the meaning squeezed out of them years ago. And let's not ignore the powerful empowerment reference at the very end of the statement.

The team from Anon also developed a vision statement:

Our vision is to be a world-class organization -- one that becomes a benchmark for other organizations, so they can copy what we do and get it right in about five years, by which time we will be light years ahead of them; one that impresses its customers the first time and every time with its plastic-laminated mission and vision statements; and one that fully empowers its employees so they aren't forced to spend an entire day in a freezing-cold hotel meeting room churning out run-on sentences while the real work backs up.

These statements are guaranteed to strike a deep chord in employees, customers, and printers of plastic-laminated cards. Imagine the Anon employee who needs a quick dose of direction or inspiration. All they'll need to do is reach into their wallet or purse and -- oh gee, I must have thrown it out.

Seriously, when done right, mission and vision statements can give an organization an incredibly powerful sense of purpose and direction. Here are several things to keep in mind:

  • Involve people from all areas and levels of the organization when developing or updating the mission and vision. They're the ones who will be making it happen so doesn't it make sense to have their hands on the clay? Sure, it's tough to orchestrate widespread co-creation. Consider tapping the services of an outside facilitator who can bring neutrality and the needed know-how to pull it off.
  • Don't let something as important as mission and vision degenerate into an "efficient" meeting aimed at cranking out two elegantly worded "statements." People should have plenty of time to talk things over and develop a deeply held understanding. In the process, they'll learn more about each other, their work, their customers, and their overall system -- not to mention their past, present, and future as an organization.
  • Steer clear of phrasing debates in which the mission- and vision-development process turns into an exercise in group-writing. That doesn't mean you should give in to bad grammar and lousy punctuation. Rather, have two or three group members team up to work on the wording; they can bring one or two clean versions to the next all-group session.
  • Five different people are likely to have five different definitions of "mission" and "vision." Begin any dialogue by reaching consensus on one definition for each. Otherwise, well-intended people will go off in wildly different directions.
  • Use the mission and vision whenever and wherever you can. At the very least, they should deeply inform the goal-setting process. The mission and vision can even be used as the context and criteria for making daily decisions.
  • For the mission and vision to remain meaningful and relevant, they need to be the focus of ongoing dialogue. Speaking of which: When's the last time you and your colleagues talked about your mission and vision?

* PLEASE NOTE: "Anon Company" is made up for the purpose of this article. Anon = Anonymous, get it? If there happens to be a real Anon Company somewhere, I am certain it's an excellent organization with world-class mission and vision statements, and I encourage you to buy its products and/or services in great quantities.

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