Vision and Mission Statements Revisited

I’m sure you have had a chance to write a vision or mission statement at one time or another in your career. In my 25 years in high-tech corporate life, I’ve seen hundreds. Unfortunately, most of them were poorly written because the authors failed to capture the true goal of a vision statement, and missed the boat completely on what they called a Mission Statement. I think the reasons for this are obvious…we were never taught how to write them properly. Isn’t that the reason for most of our problems in life? In any case, let’s begin with the Vision statement.

Vision Statement

Vision statements are usually written at a high level in a business, often for the corporation as a whole, a large business unit, or for a major program. They are intended to describe the long term goals of an organization and should be used only if the group is expected to be around for a while and have a fairly stable purpose, perhaps lasting decades or longer. A vision is a future-looking, lofty statement, without a timeline or metrics, that establishes a ‘vision’ of what life will be like when all the goals of the group are achieved. It should be written in highly motivating words that reach deep down into the soul of every employee, making them feel their jobs are worthwhile and thus motivating them to achieve great things. Some examples if a vision statement are:

“We will be the nation that leads the world in the colonization of space, spreading the seeds of humanity among the stars, ensuring human survival for eternity.” (pretty lofty, huh?) 

or, more down to Earth,

“We will be the world’s largest, best and most admired provider of project management solutions for large enterprises, delighting our customers and providing our shareholders with unsurpassed growth and value.”

or

“We will create the world’s first knowledge base that completely characterizes the human genome, unlocking the secrets of our body’s machinery and allowing researchers to develop perfect solutions to all our health problems.” (I’m looking forward to this one.)

You get the idea. Lofty goals, future looking, hard to do, no metrics and no timeline. Having established a good vision, we must try to achieve it. That is where the mission statement(s) come in.

Mission Statement

A mission statement describes a large step a company will take to move closer to its vision. The mission, obviously, should be connected to the vision. It must include a timeline and a metric of some sort that, once reached, will make it obvious that the mission is accomplished. Perhaps the most famous mission statement, although he called it a ‘goal’ in his speech in 1961, was Kennedy’s, “I believe that 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.”  All the elements of a well written mission are there.  A metric, “…landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth”, and a timeline, “…before this decade is out.”  Other examples of mission statements might be:

“We will decrease our inventories by 20%, while maintaining or surpassing current shipments and profit margins, by October 1st of this year.”

or

“We will improve our product quality to six-sigma levels, while maintaining or surpassing our profit margins and shipment levels, by the end of this calendar year.”

The mission does not say how the results will be achieved. That is the purpose of the plans and work-breakdown-structures for the projects or programs that will be chartered to achieve the mission. But, the mission sets the high-level goal for those projects.

I hope this all makes logical and pragmatic sense and that it encourages the project managers among you to offer suggestions to the writers of those high-level vision statements and for everyone to write better mission statements. If written properly, these two critical pieces of business planning can greatly clarify for everyone exactly what is expected of them and hopefully will ignite the fires within.

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