We can learn a lot about mission and vision through the context of some of America’s founding documents.
Whenever I sit and write for this industry, I try to bring something that is interesting, relevant to elevating the industry, and usually try to deliver it with perhaps a little fun and humor while giving you something to take away. Before I begin this article in earnest, with everything happening in the world at the moment, there is one thing that I keep coming back to each time I reflect on our current state and the future. Aptly titled it is “The American Crisis” by Thomas Paine first published on December 19, 1776 in The Pennsylvania Journal.
“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”
This theme of the American founding will actually be a useful tool that will allow me to keep a promise I made in my last article in Civil & Structural Engineer Magazine (for those following my work). That promise was to discuss the changing landscape of strategy design in order to understand the underlying logic and return to the true power of a well-crafted, purpose driven, mission and vision statement. These two statements, in combination with your values, provide the foundation of your firm’s strategic plan. These statements articulate the why (vision), what (mission), and how (values) of our organization. It sets the bedrock for the culture you are attempting to build and eventually what sets you apart from other firms (competitive advantage).
Let’s first talk about proper hierarchy. I suppose you could make an argument in favor of building this from the bottom up, but I think it flows most logically from the top down. I also think it communicates a sense of importance and value for each of these statements. It will be clearer for you in a moment, but the point I’d like you to take away is this: It is far more important, for a myriad of reasons, for your people to know the why than it is for them to know the actions, goals, strategy, or even how/what. That is why the following hierarchy, starting from the top down, is generally how we help firms define who they want to be.
- Why – vision statement
- What – mission statement
- How – values statements
For this conversation, we will focus on defining the two highest levels of this hierarchy, the vision and mission. The vision statement is an aspirational description of what an organization would like to achieve or accomplish in the mid-term or long-term future. It is intended to serve as a clear guide for choosing current and future courses of action. In other words, a vision statement is an articulation of a view of the world that your company and your people are working toward (a just cause/purpose), not what they are expected to do now. It is a vivid picture of where you are headed to motivate others to take the journey with you. This is also something that you may never achieve, at least in your lifetime.
Revisiting our theme, one of the strongest vision statements of all time can be found in the Declaration of Independence. Interestingly enough, the pursuit of happiness was originally derived from John Locke’s trinity, “life, liberty, and property,” however, the fear was that by including property it would give the proponents of slavery an argument that slavery was enshrined. Property rights therefore were assumed at the time and removing it further advanced many of the founders’ goal of abolition of slavery. Now, the following example is longer than we normally advise for the firms we work with due to some of the explanatory components of the statement. Providing the additional context is something, however, that we often encourage within the context of your website, certain project/client pursuits, or in how it applies to a number of other scenarios.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
Moving along to the mission statement, this is our what. Properly crafted mission statements (1) serve as filters to separate what is important from what is not and (2) communicate a sense of intended direction to the entire organization. In other words, this statement is intended to describe what we are doing to achieve our vision. The difference in the two being that the vision is a description of an end state and the mission is what we are doing to get there. Just as the Declaration of Independence was a document intended to describe America’s why, the reason why governments are instituted in the first place, the Constitution describes what we are intended to do to get there. The mission statement can be found right in the preamble.
“We the People of the Unites States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
I hope that you find this information useful as many firms are entering the strategic planning and business planning season. If any of this is still unclear or you need help building a true legacy building/purpose led strategy, please give us a call.
Phil Keil is director of strategy services at Zweig Group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.