I’m know I’m almost alone in this, but when I start a new job, one of the first things I want to know is whether the company has a Vision Statement.
I’ve always found it a real window into the heart of a company… but possibly not for the reasons that the authors intended. For example, where a vision is vaguely worded but grandiose, I see a lack of confidence and direction. Where a vision is long-winded and unmemorable, I see a communication block between the top of a company and its workforce. Where a vision is disconnected from the actual daily business, I see a leadership ignorant of commercial reality.
The concept of a vision statement began shortly after the Second World War, with former senior officers entering or re-entering the workforce and trying to put the lessons of leadership and management they learned on the battlefields of Europe, North Africa and the Far East to work in a peacetime environment. In the armed forces, though, a mission statement isn’t something to paste up on a wall. It’s an ephemeral thing that applies to the problem immediately before us. The mission is “kill the enemy” (or variations upon that theme). Once the enemy is dead, the mission moves on.
However, “kill the enemy” isn’t the full text of the mission statement. There is also the “in order to” (I never heard it called anything else). So a section’s mission will be “kill the enemy, in order to… allow the main advance to continue/relieve pressure upon the company flank/allow the platoon to occupy the higher ground over Objective X…” This is all very macho, of course, but the point is that the “in order to” is there so that, if the mission becomes unachievable or the situation changes, those in command of the mission can make an intelligent and informed judgement call on what to do instead in order to continue pursuing the intent of their superiors: in other words, they can use their initiative in pursuit of the vision.
So turning back to the mundane world of business, there are lessons to learn from this that will show us what a well-written and useful Vision Statement actually looks like.
The Vision cannot exist without the Mission and vice versa
It’s all very well knowing what your leaders are trying to achieve in the long run, but it must be tied to practical action or it’s nothing more than pie in the sky. The structure of “We will [do the Mission] in order to [achieve the Vision]” may or may not suit you, but if you can’t re-frame whatever wording you choose to use in that form then there’s something wrong, somewhere.
SMART principles apply at the very top
There’s no point setting a destination if you can’t tell whether you’ve got there or not. So when you set a Vision, you need to already have a system in hand that can tell you when you’ve arrived, regularly check yourself against that system and report back to the whole workforce on the progress you’re making.
This applies to both the Vision and the Mission. Being specific – especially in a Vision – can take courage, because you’re creating a yardstick by which the organization’s leadership will be measured by its stakeholders. But courage is a positive quality and setting SMART objectives improves performance. Being vague just communicates fear.
Vision first, then Mission
You don’t plan your route before deciding on your destination! But I see so often the tendency for organizations to look at what they’re already doing and then decide where they want it to take them. But that’s akin to saying “well, I’m on the M1 North, so I might as well go to Sheffield” when you live in Birmingham and need to get off onto the M40!
Keep it short
If you can’t summarize your Vision and your Mission in one or, maximum, two sentences then you’re not going to galvanize anyone to do anything. Bullet points are fine if they can be boiled down to important words. At the end of the day, if someone asks an employee “so what does your organization do?” they should be able to repeat the key points of your Mission and your Vision confident that they understand it but also that they don’t sound like cult members.
Vision statements are viewed by many at all levels of an organization with intense cynicism. The reason for vague, jargon-filled, wordy, forgettable nonsense can often be found in the “written by committee” nature of most such statements. Getting around this will depend upon your particular organization’s culture, but the fewer people you have working on it, the stronger the result will typically be. And the stronger the result, the easier it will be to persuade your organization’s leaders to get on board. If they can see it as a statement of achievable ambition with practical benefit, to which their contribution can be clearly defined, people will get behind it.
New to this blog? See all of Robey’s past articles here.