How to coin realistic mission and vision statements

Mission, vision, and values are extremely important business ideals. They define the overall direction and the culture with which to steer the establishment to its next destination. Yet in many organisations, these ideals are taken for granted. Nice sounding vision, mission and value statements are casually coined and that’s just about it.

The truth is; if the vision is not driven from inside-out and the mission so articulated, then the prescribed values by which to work will equally be cosmetic, if not chaotic. It is important that the conceptualisation of these guiding statements not only reflect the true spirit and desires of the leaders of the organisation, but are also realistic.

How do you achieve this? Following are some tips:

The ‘what and why approach’ to mission statement

There is no one correct formula for developing a mission statement. What matters is that the end result is a statement that reverberates across the organisation with the most succinct message about what the establishment is all about and exists to undertake.

The development of such a message more often than not requires the leadership of the individual who best understands the entire spectrum of the organisation. That person would be the top chief executive, especially one who has the ability to crystallise the organisations purpose with the necessary wisdom and foresight. This person should be the one to draft the mission statement, which should then be shared across every level of employees for additional input. This broad involvement should bring about a mission statement that excites everyone in the organisation towards a common purpose.

In their book, Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras offer a suggestion that works quite well. They propose a concept they describe as “Five Whys”. In this method, the mission statement is developed in two stages.

The first stage involves writing out a statement that describes what the organisation exists for. The statement must be written out with as much clarity as can be summoned. The second stage entails finding five different answers to the question, “Why?”

Collins and Porras argue that generally after five whys, the true mission of the organisation begins to crystallise. That’s because by the fifth ‘why’, chances are you will have explored both the micro-purpose for the existence of the organisation as well as the broader reason.

Indeed, answering the why question several times in different ways allows people to start viewing the organisation from different perspectives. Thus, a good mission statement not only tells what the organisation does, but also the reason it will not stop to spend resources doing it. I call this the “What and Why Approach” to developing a mission statement.

A clear and accurate mission statement makes it easier to manage performance in line with the organisation’s real purpose.


Two ways to the vision statement

The vision of an organisation is what it seeks to eventually become or attain. It is either the ultimate form it aspires to acquire, or the eventual goal it aims to score by a specified time in the long-term.

A vision statement is thus the brief sentence that summarises the organisation’s long-term aspiration. To be real, it must reflect an inherent ambition, and therefore quite unique to the organisation.

The good vision statement is one that instils the desired mental framework into every member of the organisation. It should ideally be straight to the point, provable, motivating, appealing to all categories of the stakeholders and consistent with the organisation’s mission.

Consider a vision statement such as: “2,000 stores by 2000”. It is succinct – straight to the point. It grabs attention. That was Starbucks vision before year 2000: to have 2,000 stores by the turn of the century. Whatever your involvement in that American coffee company, you needed no explanation as to its aspirations. If you had to play a role, you would do so with a clear focus.

That vision statement was provable. By year 2000, one could prove if Starbucks achieved it or not by simply counting the total number of stores. There is no denying either, that the statement was motivating. Staff, shareholders and customers would not only be excited at the prospect of having more stores by the turn of the century, but the fact that the targeted number would synchronise with the much awaited new millennium must have created some exciting buzz. Accordingly, the statement must have been generally appealing.

There are many ways to develop an effective vision statement. However, two methods stand out as the most engaging, exciting, inspiring, and, out of experience, very productive. They are Executive Interviews Approach (EIA) and Back-to-the-Future Technique (BFT).

EIA involves inviting an experienced consultant to engage senior executives in conversations aimed at gathering their aspirations for the organisation. These conversations are held individually and privately for about an hour, and should be designed to obtain both industry and organisation specific perspectives of each executive.

The discussions should elicit information about what each of the senior executive perceive of the industry as well as the organisation from past to present, and on to the future. Once these sets of information have been obtained, the consultant consolidates and summarises the results and presents them to the organisation’s chief executive.

The CEO then uses the given information to draft a vision for the organisation. The involvement of the CEO in this manner ensures that he/she owns the vision as the person to steer the rest of the team in the desired direction.

The CEO’s draft vision statement is then presented to the senior management team for debate. The focus of the discussions would be to ensure that the vision statement captures the critical elements brought out by the interviews. The decision following the debate, assuming it is a more refined draft vision statement, is then shared with the rest of the team for feedback. This helps to gauge the level of its support. The aim is to have a statement that is accepted as widely as possible by members of the organisation.

The BFT is an exciting exercise – more like a game, but highly productive. The group approach to the technique, which can also be conducted individually, requires a workshop set-up. Again, it is important that a consultant administers this process to eliminate any internal biases.

BFT involves gathering senior managers in a room and taking them through an elaborate exercise that incites them to imagine that they have just woken up and found that they travelled overnight some 10 to 15 years into the future. They have to note down their imaginations about what they have witnessed about the organisation in the distant future.

Is it successful? If so or not, why? What markets is it serving? What core competencies does it have? What’s its position in relation to the competitors?

The team is given about 15 minutes to put their imaginations to a drill, and record on distributed cards, what they have seen. These statements are listed on a flip chart, to be used as raw material for drafting a representative vision statement.