Improving Mission and Vision Statements
Let's make sure our facilitation helps individuals and organizations understand the difference between mission and vision and how to use them to drive results.
Approximate reading time: six minutes; 1543 words.
Improving Mission and Vision Statements
Ever endured hours of mind-numbing wordsmithing that resulted in a mission or vision statement that excited few and offended no one? This post is for you.
Was the statement then relegated to a poster on the wall and a mention on the website, dusted off only when it came time for the next strategic planning retreat? This post is for you.
When I reflect on my 30 years of work in higher education, association management, and consulting, one thing is ever-present: the failure to develop easily understood and well-utilized mission and vision statements.
Hey, let’s change that! Let’s be the facilitators that help more individuals and groups understand and utilize mission and vision statements to drive meaningful results.
The Difference Between Mission and Vision
We can begin by ensuring organizations have a strong grasp of the fundamental difference between mission and vision. Many do not.
Influenced by my own experiences as a CEO and facilitator, and some of the organizational development and strategy literature, here’s the concise take I offer to groups:
Mission: the business you are in, the fundamental reason you exist
Vision: an inspiring and aspirational picture of a desired future state
Using analogies that resonate with the group you’re facilitating can help cement the respective meaning of these two important concepts/terms.
I associate mission with an anchor. It keeps you from straying or becoming adrift, particularly during turbulent conditions. I liken vision to a North Star, always visible for guidance but not easily reached.
The following statements from the Association of Children’s Museums illustrate these definitions.
Notice that neither of these statements specifies exactly what the association does or how it realizes its mission or vision. That’s by design. Except in rare cases, the “stuff” that an organization does is not the reason it exists or to what it aspires. Programs, products, and services are a means, not the end.
If you want to read more on this topic or need a good model to help you facilitate such conversations with groups, I suggest looking at Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. His distinctions of why, how, and what typically resonate well with groups.
Here is a short (not the best quality) TEDx video of Sinek explaining the Circle.
Two Tests for Effective Statements
When facilitating strategy sessions, I use two evaluation questions to help groups evaluate the potential effectiveness of their statements.
Evaluation Question #1
Is the statement actionable? Will it readily inform individual and organizational decisions at both the macro and micro levels?
A good statement is a useful statement. It should inform the efforts of any individual, department, or team in an organization.
I find one way a statement demonstrates its potential to influence action is if we can turn it into meaningful questions to help determine strategy, goals, objectives, and resource allocation.
Let’s take the ACM examples for a test drive. Here are some statement-inspired questions for which I can easily imagine facilitating meaningful discussions.
What is being learned about the diverse ways that children learn and develop that should inform our efforts and those of our members?
With whom might we want to work to further champion children’s museums worldwide?
What messages and media might accelerate or enhance the results of our championing efforts?
Where in the world is respect most lacking for the diverse ways children learn and develop? How might we help change that?
How might we influence policy makers and funders to better honor all children and support the diverse ways they learn and develop?
What research should we conduct and what data should we collect to better champion children’s museums worldwide.
What internal competencies might we need to strengthen in order to be better champions?
Which children’s museums are must undervalued or under-championed? What contributions can we make to changing those conditions?
Evaluation Question #2
Can meaningful metrics be established to measure results?
Some organizations build metrics right into their statements, particularly for visions. Example: By 2030, we will increase the number of certified professionals to 25,000.
Choosing metrics should not be arbitrary. Used appropriately, metrics help groups assess progress, allocate fiscal and human resources, and determine priorities for programs, products, and communications.
Because a vision is aspirational, the metrics should not be easily achievable. A powerful vision should inspire fresh thinking, new ideas, and more innovative approaches. Effective facilitation ensures groups assess if their vision is sufficiently desirable, inspiring, and aspirational.
It is not unusual that organizations default to vague and subjective visions that may not influence decisions and often are difficult to quantify or qualify, assuming they even intend to do so. Example: We will be an indispensable resource for our members.
If a group insists on a vague mission or vision, our facilitation can still ensure they create an appropriate metric for assessing their efforts.
For this example statement, an organization could annually ask all members to rate how indispensable their affiliation with the organization is to their success. Analyzing responses could identify commonalities and inconsistencies among stakeholders and what that might mean for future efforts.
Crafting Better Mission and Vision Statements
Even with a useful metric attached, a vague mission or vision is likely to fall short of appropriately influencing decision-making. Worse yet is that people simply ignore it or are unaware of its existence. Effective facilitation can help change this by challenging groups to better articulate their intentions in more powerful and succinct language.
My #1 tool for improving the quality of missions or visions, reducing the verbiage only to what is essential, and unearthing the deeper meaning of any language used is the Five Why Test.
Let’s put “We will be an indispensable resource for our members” through the Five Why process, something you can do for any draft statement.
As facilitator, ask group members to consider their draft statement and answer the following questions.
Why does this matter?
Why is this important?
What is meaningful about this?
What value would this help create?
Participants are then asked to answer these same four questions for the responses they just gave. This process is repeated up to five times.
While you can do this verbally with the group as a whole, I tend to have individuals silently go through the process on a worksheet and then facilitate open discussion. I find this produces more robust discussion and individual insights.
As they dig deeper, group members usually unearth the meaning behind the initial statement draft and discover more powerful and concise language that better articulates their true intentions and aspirations.
FAQs about Mission or Vision Development
Must an organization have a vision statement?
No. I find them incredibly value, but many organizations lack a vision statement and still produce incredible results.
Where does core purpose fit in with all of this?
Sigh. It’s complicated. If you scan the management and strategy literature, you’ll find articles that suggest a core purpose is an organization’s why or even equating it with “the business you’re in,” what I’ve described as mission.
One of the reasons for this is that mission statements once were paragraph-long descriptions of who an organization serves, how they serve those stakeholders, and what results they strive to achieve. Core purpose then became a succinct articulation of the why or business that got lost in all this other verbiage.
In my efforts, I find some groups use mission and core purpose interchangeably. These groups typically have a very concise and useful statement regardless of what they call it.
In my own thinking core purpose is an even simpler expression of the mission. Take my work for example:
My mission: help individuals and organizations build their competence and capacity to facilitate better, discussions, decisions, and results.
My core purpose: help everyone facilitate better.
Are BHAGs vision statements?
BHAGs is a term popularized by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their seminal work Built to Last. The acronym stands for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals.
I know organizations with one BHAG that fulfills the same function as a vision statement. I know organizations with many BHAGs that serve as mini vision statements for specific programs, services, or functional areas.
Sometimes I see a mission that looks like a vision or a vision that looks like a mission. What is happening here?
I wish I knew. What I’ve often discovered in encountering the same is a lack of understanding about the respective contributions of mission and vision and how they integrate with strategy and operational planning.
Rather than tell a group it is doing this wrong. I usually lead them through the Five Why framework and see if what emerges is more helpful language and clarity to inform their efforts.
What is the best headache medicine for facilitators to take after facilitating a mission or vision development session?
Personally, I favor Advil often combined with some scalp massaging and/or a little reflexology for cranial trigger points.
While increasing a group’s understanding and use commonly accepted terms and definitions is desirable, it should not be a facilitator’s overarching goal. What matters most is that we help individuals and organizations create mission and vision statements and corresponding metrics that inspire, support, and accelerate meaningful results.
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2022. All rights reserved.
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