Time was when every business had a vision and mission that senior executives would proudly recite on request. In recent years however, I hear them mentioned less.

It may be that they have become lost in the plethora of additional coordinates we use to define our businesses, or, perhaps they have just become a bit of a blunt instrument. Newer concepts like purpose, promise and values are now being used to define our brands and businesses and the point of vision and mission has maybe been overlooked.

Clarifying “vision and mission”

In fact, I use twelve co-ordinates in the brand models I create to define my clients’ brands, but I always like to use vision and mission as a starting point. 

I’ve always believed that vision and mission was something that business consultants defined as part of their business plan development. I certainly do, so I expect every business to have one in some drawer or other, even if they don’t refer to them. What I’m finding though is that when I get my clients to dig them out they aren’t always as useful as I would expect them to be.

This is mainly because executives don’t seem to understand them or the role they play in the success of a business. This seems to be the fault of business consultants re-inventing the wheel. Putting their own spin on vision and mission, which is not at all helpful. Most of the vision and mission statements I see these days aren’t visions or missions at all.

The terms “vison” and “mission” are surely self-explanatory? They are also still relevant and useful. However, to do their job we need to be sure what they mean, so here goes.

Getting your vision and mission right

Vision is where you see your business being at some point in the future. In days gone by it wasn’t unusual to find businesses with a vision of where they want to be five or even ten years ahead. However, the pace of change in the digital economy makes such a projection impossible. These days we tend to consider a span of three years. Yes, that means that we have to review our vision more frequently, but this is only a good thing and it should probably have been done more often in the past anyway. In fact, even three years is a stretch given the current rate of change.

Your vision is expressed as a sentence. Something like “to be number one in their sector”, “to be the bench-mark by which consumers judge other players in the sector” or “To be a synonym for the product category (like Biro or Hoover)”. There is no set of options for businesses to choose from here. The vision is unique to each business and is the product of lengthy debate, discussion and analysis. That is, after all, what business consultants were supposed to do.

Vision, objective, promise and purpose are not synonymous. Although I hear them used interchangeably all the time they have distinct meanings which when combined, as I do in my brand models, provide a precise definition of a brand.

Your mission is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a list of tasks or benchmarks. Points that you have to pass through on your journey to your vision. The key is in the name — “mission”. Think of it as a “to-do” list.

These could be things like …

  • Adopt digital technology at the heart of your business
  • Re-train your employees in the new processes this facilitates
  • Use the tech to gain a better insight of consumer needs
  • Expand geographically
  • Streamline distribution …

Make it real

The options are infinite and there is no fixed number that you should have, it depends on how far you are away from realising your objective.

Your business plan will include at least an outline plan for each of these individual projects, but it’s important that, however many you end up with, you understand you can’t tackle them all at once. This realisation should create a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between your vision and mission. If, when you start to sketch out your mission you realise you just don’t have the resources to arrive at where you want to be in the time you have available, you will have two options.

Option one will be to invest in more resources. There are different approaches you can take to this ranging from acquiring new investment — which itself represents a project — to switching to a less labour-reliant approach to challenges, which might mean you bring your digital transformation project to the top of your list.

The other option, of course, would be to lower your sights, set a different vision that’s less ambitious. I have always told my clients that their vision should be feasible, but involve some pain. If it’s too easy you will be under-performing. Too ambitious and your business will likely fail.

You should sketch out a time plan for each project. This will give you an idea of how many you can tackle at a time. If you have twenty projects you might have half a dozen on the go at a time. Once one comes to fruition, you can start the next on the list.

Vision and mission are not set in stone

This raises the obvious issue of maintaining relevance. As we have already established, things change fast in the digital age and by the time you have completed a project, at least some of those remaining on the list may either not be necessary, or you may need something different. This is why your vision and mission are not set in stone and should be under constant review.

Gone are the days when a business would have a business plan and leaders would just plough on with delivering it however long it takes. Part of the task of leaders these days is to monitor and constantly adapt their plan. As Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz tells us, to be a successful leader in the digital age means you have to be an “adaptive manager”. Some might even argue that a business plan, certainly in the form familiar to traditional leaders is no longer feasible or relevant. So much will have changed that might require a re-think, even before the ink is try on a traditional business plan. I know this makes a lot of traditional leaders nervous, but it is now the reality and sticking to an out-dated plan might see you making progress, but in totally the wrong direction.

So, vision and mission shouldn’t be overlooked. They are as important and relevant now as they ever were, they just have to be viewed in the context of today’s brand and business planning.

Phil Darby
June 27, 2023

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