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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.

Defining Your Company's Vision

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]