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Defining Your Company's Vision

Many organizations confuse mission and vision. A mission is about who you are. Missions rarely change. Visions should be dynamic and drive constant learning and innovation.

I am working with a client on a vision for their organization. I find it interesting that people in leadership positions still have a difficult time differentiating a vision from a mission—not just in wording, but in concept.

A mission is a statement of why an organization exists. It should be short and very clear.

Even big companies have mission and vision issues. Take The Walt Disney Company. Disney used to have a very clear mission statement: "Make People Happy."

It didn't say make people happy through animation, or theme parks, or interactive experiences. Those are details. Its mission was to make people happy.

Now their mission is "to be one of the world's leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. Using our portfolio of brands to differentiate our content, services and consumer products, we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related products in the world."

Disney obviously hired a strategic planning consultant to help it shape its mission statement to match the expectations of MBAs on Wall Street. I don't think their current statement does anything to enhance its mission; in fact, I think it detracts because you have to figure out what words like "differentiate" mean. They may be more strategic and more business sounding, but do they still make people happy? Making people happy keeps customers returning, unlike a profitable, innovative entertainment experience. It is obvious that the new mission statement drove investments like Disney's California Adventure.

And if you look at Disney assets, even ESPN could sign up for making people happy. I was in Florida for a Patriots game once with a bunch of people from Boston. ESPN was blaring from speakers and shining from big screens. And the ESPN Club brought in portable taps so they could serve people outside. They scaled up the Club, and scaling up, and serving up Patriots football, meant people were happy. Somebody's vision of happy customers drove that experience.

Now to vision. A vision isn't a statement. A vision is a set of ideas that describe a future state. Some organizations like "vision statements" but I don't find them overly useful. The future is something that an organization must grapple with. Visions should provide a sense of aspiration, they should stretch imagination. They should describe the state of the organization, across its functions, not rush to summary. Different parts of an organization may have different visions.

I coach clients to think about vision attributes, then to think about the capabilities required to deliver those attributes. Then I ask them to consider how to measure progress through both metrics and a road map (a sketch of a pathway that leads from the present to the goal).

At the broad vision level, organizations should not try to measure their progress. A vision statement isn't a transformation into a future mission.

Let me go back to the simple version of Disney. Making people happy doesn't change—ever (unless mergers and acquisitions cause you to hire a consultant that helps put big words into the board's collective mouths). But let's consider that Disney still wants to make people happy.

Their vision may include:

  • Be the leader in the delivery of entertainment experiences.
  • Be the premier channel for sports experiences and information.

Those aren't the same, but Disney is a complex company. It is okay to have vision statements that align with business units. And as the vision becomes more granular, it should include elements that can be measured.

For the first item, they would include theme parks, hotel properties, ice shows, movies, video games, and a number of other things. Each of which would imply a set of capabilities, and a set or measures to determine progress (quantitative and qualitative).

The next discussion sometimes includes a statement like: "That isn't a vision, we are already the leader in entertainment experiences, and have been for years."

Well yes, you may be the leader, but if you want to stay one, shouldn't you restate it as part of your vision? A vision is not just about growing, but about maintaining. If the vision doesn't include "being a leader in the delivery of entertainment experiences," what does that mean for those parts of the business? Is there some future state that is better than being a leader? Are we abandoning those businesses, or deinvesting so we are just "mediocre in the delivery of entertainment experiences"?

In fact, there was a time when Disney kind of lost its collective soul, in the early to mid-1980s when box office share dwindled to less than 4% and it turned down films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET—and was the target of investment raiders. Theme parks became real estate and their movies uninspired. Poor management was reflected in a poor understanding of vision and mission. Happy people were no longer center stage.

The bottom line on vision, then, is to recognize the complexities of the business and create visions for areas that are meaningful to internal and external constituencies, and make sure these visions are consistent with the mission. Grapple with the future. If the vision is 10 years out, you don't have to understand how to achieve it today, but you do need to start prioritizing investments, including learning investments, that dip toes into the future so you really understand what the organization will need to achieve the vision. And the state that eventually arrives in a decade may be very different than what was documented 10 years prior, but by then, the vision should be another 10 years ahead. A vision should help inform direction and help set priorities. It should be not be unchanging. As organizations learn, they need to adjust and adapt, and reflect that learning in the vision. That is why scenarios are so important: They help you practice different futures in which the vision might unfold—each scenario requiring different tactics and strategies.

Any vision that stays the same for a decade fails as a vision. Visions should be used every time an investment or deinvestment decision is made, and if parts prove no longer valid, or if the world presents new opportunities, then the vision should be updated. Visioning is a process, not an output. You can share your vision with people, but it should be shared with the caveat that it is updated regularly, and with the request: "Please share your thoughts, because we are always open to new perspectives and better ways to think about our future." That approach will not only make the vision more meaningful and resilient, it will make the organization behave as a learning organization, and that may just be part of its vision.

[Image: Flickr user Joe Penniston]

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  • Thanks for teeing up the topic of Mission and Vision. In my experience, a Vision that paints a clear and compelling picture written in the present tense in enough detail to provide clarity is most compelling. It is not boiled down into a single sentence, but rather it is a heartfelt, authentic narrative that allows others in the organization to see themselves (or not) in the future that is to be created.

  • Johnathan Bruning

    I think your comparison of the two vision statements it's striking.

    A bit like a child full of the goodness of life willing to share its gift of joy and the other a broken man standing behinde a farting camel.

    I'm excited, thank you for the shot of inspo. JB

  • Joshua Payne

    Daniel clearly lays out what makes a good vision statement; and why an organisations vision statement should not be scripted up by an external consulting firm. Instead it should come from the dreams of its leaders!

  • Erica Mills

    I have a different take on how to think about Vision and Mission thanks to  Hildy Gottlieb. Add -ary to the end of each word and you get a clear sense of their purpose.


    One sets the vision. The other implements. Put another way, one is your 'why' and the other is your 'how'. 

    Gavin makes a great point about people being able to see themselves in the vision. If they don't connect, why bother helping to make it happen?

  • Gavin McMahon

    I like your post, but disagree with some elements.

    Vision Statement is an oxymoron. The best "visions" for a company allow people (employees, partners, shareholders) to see themselves in the picture the vision maps out. It paints the landscape that the company will operate in and the marketplace it will compete in and shows those people (in broad terms) what will be done. By definition it needs a strong visual element, that taps into emotions. "Make People Happy." does this. Better to show a picture of this. The antiseptic corporate speak takes emotion out, builds up rationality and makes the whole thing antiseptic. People don't rally behind the words most consultants create, MBA's like and Wall street wants. And ultimately people will make or break the business.A Mission then has more tactical elements that drive people to action within that vision and future. In my opinion, this usually means that a good vision is stable over a relatively long period, and the mission is more likely to change, as market conditions, innovation and shifts warrant.

  • Sandra @opento

    I've just come across this and thoroughly agree with your idea of the vision mapping the landscape. I use the idea of a Brand World. Companies and brands may invite you in but you will only live there if it feels welcoming and comfortable for you.

  • Jamiel Cotman

    This is so true. A mission is what you do:

    Sample, Better Girls Inc

    "Use modern technology to educate teen girls"

    The vision, is a worded picture, and end result of what you do:

    Sample, Better Girls Inc 

    "Teen girls with access to modernized education" 

    The vision is the fastest way to communicate your purpose, while the mission is great for explaining what your company does when interacting with other professionals. 

    The vision has to be communicated to all parties that are critical to a businesses success [employees, investors, suppliers, customers]. It allows these parties to guide the company to that end. When a vision is unclear, or everyone is unaware of it, its difficult to navigate. 

  • Mogwai

    Thanks! This will help me help clients articulate their proposition. Too often they come back with their mission, or even their vision; which is great, it just needs to be framed in a way relevant to the customer (the proposition that is; vision is still a bit vague, any more examples?). Reading your article gives me greater insight into some of their answers.