Nearly everyone in business will have a company mission statement and many will have a vision statement too. But which is which? And does it matter? Surely, some will say, they are interchangeable. Not so fast…
This is a much-covered discussion, but it’s surprising how often it is tainted by careless assumptions, so it’s worth unpicking. First, the words themselves are the biggest clues. Someone ‘on a mission’ usually has a very particular purpose and set of goals. It’s about what they want to do to get things done. A vision, on the other hand is more to do with (sorry if this is too obvious) what can be seen, usually in the distance or somewhere or sometime in the future. While these two things seem different enough, there is a dangerous overlap: the vision is often understood as the long-term goal and the mission is for the short or medium term. They’re both goal-related (possibly even ‘target oriented’, if you can excuse my language), and so unless some careful thinking goes into what they are and what purpose they serve, confusion is likely.
The relevance and usefulness of both are also vulnerable because they are often seen as a ‘bolt-ons’, something that a business should have, rather than as key tool in defining the direction of growth. This is especially the case for mission statements. And you can understand why. When a business is young – perhaps as a dynamic start-up – the small group of people making things happen share the same aims, and probably the same values. As a company grows it is easy for those entrepreneurs to assume their new staff think in the same way. They may do so, of course, (that’s probably why they got the job) but a time will come when the size and nature of the business makes it inevitable that not everyone will be going in the same direction or even doing things in the same way.
At this point, while it’s never too late, it is often very hard to wind back the clock and make crystal clear what the business is all about. Most business will have enough momentum to sort out misunderstanding and overcome challenges, but it’s at this point that clear vision is worth its weight in gold. This is fundamentally important for sectors facing change. Take the fossil fuel industry for example, where many oil companies now brand themselves as energy providers not producers of oil or coal. A clear vision will help re-frame what the business is about and what its long-term goals are. From this, a mission statement can emerge. But the process is not risk-free and for many businesses the two are too easily confused. So, it’s worth looking in a little more detail.
Our vision is our long-term aspiration, although it must not be so extremely idealistic that it gets put off for ever. It should be something we can achieve, but it’s not a short-term target. A vision should be vivid and strong – for example, making all manufacturing environmentally friendly. It’s unlikely to be achieved in the immediate future, but today’s developing technologies and the vision’s inherent importance means that it should be achieved in many sectors within our lifetimes. A meaningful vision has pin sharp clarity and an almost holistic scope. To carry weight, it needs to be simply understood. And that’s that challenge. Findings the right words to capture what your business is really about can be much harder than you imagine.
A mission statement, by comparison may seem much easier. Generally, it’s understood as the shared short-term encapsulation of the vision. As such it needs to summarise the values and aims of the business and what the business will do to achieve the aims while maintaining the values. And for any business it needs to something that all employees can sign up to. Like a vision statement, a mission statement needs to be crystal clear and aspirational and – critically – achievable. In commercial terms it’s going to need to identify markets, products and unique selling points. In moral terms it should set out how the business will achieve these goals ethically. That’s a lot of thinking squeezed into a statement which should be short and memorable. Easier said than done.
It’s really is hard to get it right, which is why we’re probably all familiar with the mission statements that mean almost nothing. They are badly written and full of nebulous claims. Most are just a bit annoying and a waste of effort. Some are either so vague or so unrealistic that the main response is ridicule or contempt. Many do the opposite of what they set out to do. Rather than act as a focus for motivation and progress, they emphasise (or even create) the gap between the executives who dreamt them up and the rest of the workforce.
And at a time when economies globally and domestically are under so much pressure, its never been more important to get both these concepts right and turn them into realities. The business that has a clear vision can develop a meaningful and purposeful mission statement. A company that has that, has a secure foothold on its future journey. So, take a moment. Do you know where you company should be going and how it’s going to get there? Is your answer today the same as it was a year ago? If you’re not sure, put aside some time to think it through. This is the time to capture the clarity that could re-make your future; you can protect your livelihood and the livelihood of everyone who works with you. It’s an opportunity to build a prosperous future based on a really clear understanding of what you are about. And if you are still not sure how important this is, here’s a challenge: to which organisation do you think these belong?
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