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1. Vision or Mission – what comes first?

There is sometimes debate as to which comes first the Vision or the Mission and quite often the two are totally confused. Vision Statements and Mission Statements do two totally different jobs.

  • A Vision Statement outlines what the organization wants to be. It concentrates on the future. It is a source of inspiration. It provides clear decision-making criteria. Vision Statements define the organizations purpose, in terms of the organization’s values rather than bottom line measures (values are guiding beliefs about how things should be done.) The vision statement communicates both the purpose and values of the organization. For employees, it gives direction about how they are expected to behave and inspires them to give their best. Shared with customers, it shapes customers’ understanding of why they should work with the organization.
  • A Mission Statement tells you the fundamental purpose of the organization. It concentrates on the present. It defines the customer and the critical processes. It informs you of the desired level of performance. A Mission Statement defines the organization’s purpose and primary objectives. Its prime function is internal – to define the key measure or measures of the organization’s success – and its prime audience is the leadership team and shareholders.

Many people mistake vision statement for mission statement. The Vision describes a future identity while the Mission serves as an ongoing and time-independent guide. The Mission describes why it is important to achieve the Vision.

A Mission statement defines the purpose or broader goal for being in existence or in the business and can remain the same for decades if crafted well. A Vision statement is more specific in terms of both the future state and the time frame. Vision describes what will be achieved if the organization is successful.

A mission statement can resemble a vision statement in a few companies, but that can confuse everyone. The vision statement can galvanize the people to achieve defined objectives, even if they are stretch objectives, provided it can be elucidated in SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) terms. A mission statement provides a path to realize the vision in line with its values. These statements have a direct bearing on the bottom line and success of the organization.

Which comes first? The mission statement or the vision statement? That depends.

  • If you have a new start up business, new program or plan to re engineer your current services, then the vision will guide the mission statement and the rest of the strategic plan.
  • If you have an established business where the mission is established, then many times, the mission guides the vision statement and the rest of the strategic plan.

Either way, you need to know your fundamental purpose – the mission, your current situation in terms of internal resources and capabilities (strengths and/or weaknesses) and external conditions (opportunities and/or threats), and where you want to go – the vision for the future. It’s important that you keep the end or desired result in sight from the start.

2. Vision statements

The starting point I am comfortable with for the strategic planning process is the Vision” and developing the overall vision for the organization or business. This is because to succeed in the long term, all businesses need a vision of what we are striving for and what we hope to create – a values-driven “higher calling” in a sense.

“without a vision, the people perish”

To recap, a Vision Statementoutlines what the organization wants to be.

  • It concentrates on the future.
  • It is a source of inspiration.
  • It provides clear decision-making criteria.
  • Vision Statements define the organizations purpose, in terms of the organization’s values rather than bottom line measures (values are guiding beliefs about how things should be done.)
  • The vision statement communicates both the purpose and values of the organization.
  • For employees, it gives direction about how they are expected to behave and inspires them to give their best.
  • Shared with customers, it shapes customers’ understanding of why they should work with the organization.

The vision of the business is the source of its energy, it helps motivate us and it helps set the direction of corporate, marketing, sales, and operational strategy. To be effective, the vision needs to address a number of elements which are outlined in Figure 5 below.

Figure 5: The critical elements of a Vision.


A vision statement should be a vivid idealized description of a desired outcome that inspires, energizes and helps the business team create a mental picture of your long-term goals. The best vision statements describe outcomes that are five to ten years away, although some look even further out.

The purpose of a Vision Statement is to create a mental picture charged with emotion which will energize and inspire you and the wider team. A powerful vision statement should stretch expectations and aspirations inspiring you to jump out of your comfort zone.

The majority of vision statements are poorly conceived and poorly written. At very best these poor vision statements are not challenging enough to develop the creative tension between the present and the future to energize and compel the organization. Many are not even understood by the people in the organization whose task it is to strive to create the output to realize the vision.

Vision statements can usually be classified in one of three ways:

  1. The short and useful (very rare).
  2. The long tedious and confusing statement, developed by a group of executives sitting in a expensive conference room for two days, led by an “expert” and includes every stakeholder and every objective in one exceptionally long and convoluted sentence.
  3. The final one is short compared to the second but appears to have been created by an explosion in the Oxford Dictionary factory and reassembled by a random word processing program.

Vision statements which do not provide a succinct unequivocal view of the direction an organization is moving in is going to work against the aims of most organizations. These poor vision statements are only paid lip service by employees and do not positively influence the behavior of employees and create opportunities to behave in a cynical manner.

Many vision statements are often too long, lengthy “mom and apple pie” statements, not motivational, confusing and even boring due to their overall lack of relevance to the day to day business reality. They tend to be a goal, a strategy or strategies and tactics rolled into one.

To be useful, vision statements must be short, be inclusive, and suggest some degree of action and an expected outcome.

An effective vision cannot be developed without involving key stakeholders within the business but if the team working on it is too large then it seldom works. And in my experience, there will be one or two of the team who have the ability to articulate some or all of the elements and capture it in words we can all buy into. A brainstorming type of approach with no criticism or analysis as the ideas flow often works well – using a white board or butchers paper if you have subdivided into several groups.

There are a number of ways to go about the “visioning” process but some useful steps can be:

  • Learn everything you can about the organization. There is no substitute for a thorough understanding of the organization as a foundation for your vision.
  • Bring the organization’s major stakeholders into the visioning process – don’t try to do it alone. If you’re going to get others to buy into your vision, if it’s going to be a wholly shared vision, involvement of at least the key people in the organization is essential.
  • Keep an open mind as you explore the options for a new vision. Don’t be constrained in your thinking by the organization’s current direction – it may be right, but it may not.
  • Encourage input from your colleagues and subordinates. Often those further down in the organization have a well developed understanding and have a wealth of untapped ideas.
  • Understand and appreciate the existing vision. Provide continuity if possible, and don’t throw out good ideas because you didn’t originate them.

Once the essence of the vision is agreed on then there will be many different ways to word the vision but the one that is shorter and more focused will be the memorable one that the rest of the business will embrace and use as a reference point. A vision statement that is too long or flowery is not going to have any impact and the wider team will not retain it or use it in forming their decision making processes.

If possible, try to summarize your vision using a powerful phrase in the first paragraph of your vision statement. Capturing the essence of your vision using a simple memorable phrase can greatly enhance the effectiveness of your vision statement. This phrase will serve as a trigger to the rest of the vision in the mind of everyone that reads it.

In creating your Vision Statement keep in mind that:

1. A good vision is a mental model of a future state. It involves thinking about the future, and modeling possible future states. A vision doesn’t exist in the present, and it may or may not be reached in the future. However, if it is a good mental model, it shows the way to identify goals and how to plan to achieve them.

2.A good vision is idealistic. How can a vision be realistic and idealistic at the same time? The vision is realistic enough so that people believe it is achievable, but idealistic enough so that it cannot be achieved without stretching. If it is too easily achievable, it will not set a standard of excellence, nor will it motivate people to want to work toward it. On the other hand, if it is too idealistic, it may be perceived as beyond the reach of those in the organization, and discourage motivation.

3. A good vision is appropriate for the organization and for the times.A vision must be consistent with the organization’s values and culture, and its place in its environment. It must also be realistic. For example, in a time of downsizing and consolidation in an industry, a very ambitious, expansionist vision would not be appropriate. An organization with a history of being conservative, and a culture encouraging conformity rather than risk taking, would not find an innovative vision appropriate.

4. A good vision sets standards of excellence and reflects high ideals.

5. A good vision clarifies purpose and direction.In defining that “realistic, credible, attractive future for an organization,” a vision provides the rationale for both the mission and the goals the organization should pursue. This creates meaning in workers’ lives by clarifying purpose, and making clear what the organization wants to achieve. For people in the organization, a good vision should answer the question, “Why do I go to work?” With a good vision, the answer to that question should not only be, “To earn a paycheck,” but also, “To help build that attractive future for the organization and achieve a higher standard of excellence.”

6. A good vision inspires enthusiasm and encourages commitment.An inspiring vision can help people in an organization get excited about what they’re doing, and increase their commitment to the organization – where an individual’s work makes a difference, and where everyone shares a vision for the future.

7. A good vision is well articulated and easily understood. In order to motivate individuals, and clearly point toward the future, a vision must be articulated so people understand it. Most often, this will be in the form of a vision statement. There are dangers in being too terse, or too long-winded. The key is to strike a balance.

8. A good vision reflects the uniqueness of the organization, its distinctive competence, what it stands for, and what it is able to achieve.This is where the leaders of an organization need to ask themselves, “What is the one thing we do better than anyone else? What is it that sets us apart from others in our area of business?” The key is finding what it is that your organization does best. Focus your vision there.

9. A good vision is ambitious.It must not be commonplace. It must be truly extraordinary. This property gets back to the idea of a vision that causes people and the organization to stretch. A good vision pushes the organization to a higher standard of excellence, challenging its members to try and achieve a level of performance they haven’t achieved before. Inspiring, motivating, compelling visions are not about maintaining the status quo.

Vision Statements also recognize values. Values form the foundation of a business’ management style. Values provide the justification of behavior and, therefore, exert significant influence on business decisions.

An example is provided by BT Group – defining its values:

BT’s activities are underpinned by a set of values that all BT people are asked to respect:

  • We put customers first
  • We are professional
  • We respect each other
  • We work as one team
  • We are committed to continuous improvement.
  • These are supported by our vision of a communications-rich world – a world in which everyone can benefit from the power of communication skills and technology.
  • A society in which individuals, organizations and communities have unlimited access to one another and to a world of knowledge, via a multiplicity of communications technologies including voice, data, mobile, internet – regardless of nationality, culture, class or education.
  • Our job is to facilitate effective communication, irrespective of geography, distance, time or complexity.
Source: BT Group plc website

3. Mission statements

To recap, a Mission Statementtells you the fundamental purpose of the organization.

  • It concentrates on the present.
  • It defines the customer and the critical processes.
  • It informs you of the desired level of performance.
  • A Mission Statement defines the organization’s purpose and primary objectives.
  • Its prime function is internal – to define the key measure or measures of the organization’s success – and its prime audience is the leadership team and shareholders.
Figure 6: The critical elements of a Mission.


A good mission statement is a brief, powerful description of an organization’s purpose. Sadly, like vision statements, most mission statements are boring and forgettable expressions of motherhood and apple pie. Many are so vague and generalized that they could be used for almost any corporate entity. Others are just uninspiring collections of buzzwords.

Effective mission statements should:

1. Send a message clearly and concisely. They should be short enough to remember, without sacrificing the substance of the message. Google’s powerful mission is only nine words: “To facilitate access to information for the entire world.” Long, detailed statements leave the reader overwhelmed.

2. Inspire. A good mission should be a rallying cry for the organization. President Kennedy established the entire space program with one sentence: “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” NASA adopted this as its mission statement for the Apollo project.

3. Drive transformation. An organization in the midst of change can use a new mission statement to communicate its future directions.

4. Differentiate your market position. Good mission statements should differentiate the organization from its competitors.

5. Pull the corporation or organization into the future.

6. Enable trade-offs. Good mission statements should help establish priorities.

7. Guide daily behavior. A mission statement should help direct the way employees operate.

A good mission statement will enhance your organization’s effectiveness by providing clarity of purpose, inspiration and motivation, as well as a vehicle for enabling transformation.

To create a mission statement you should consider these steps:

1. First identify your organization’s “winning idea”. This is the idea or approach that will make your organization stand out from its competitors, and is the reason that customers will come to you and not your competitors (see tip below).

2. Next identify the key measures of your success. Make sure you choose the most important measures (and not too many of them!)

3. Combine your winning idea and success measures into a tangible and measurable goal.

4. Refine the words until you have a concise and precise statement of your mission, which expresses your ideas, measures and desired result.

Once you have finished (maybe) your masterpiece then check it against these criteria:

Brevity: Mission statements need to be brief. Mission statements that drag on for paragraphs may leave you with a sense of accomplishment, but in terms of real world effectiveness they never hit the mark. The shorter your mission statement is, the easier it will be for employees and other key individuals to quickly condense the organization’s activities and purposes down to a few critical points.

Focus: If you’re looking for information about the dos and don’ts of mission statements, take some time to explore what other companies have come up with. Many of the mission statements you encounter will be solid examples of everything a mission statement should be. However, you’ll probably also run into some mission statements that don’t have any direct correlation to the activities of the companies they represent. That’s a problem because one of the primary characteristics of effective mission statements is focus. Instead of trying to impress people with your mission statement, just focus on what you do best.

Clarity: Mission statements need to be easily understood by industry insiders and outsiders alike. In fact, your mission statement’s overall effectiveness may hinge on its ability to be understood by a broad range of readers. The litmus test for your company’s mission statement is to try it out on a diverse cross-section of people and ask them to repeat it back to you in their own words.

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