By Rebecca Reynolds
Vision - Mission. These two little words could hardly be more misunderstood. It's odd. And worse, it's debilitating for the organizations suffering under the misunderstanding. Here are some of the common misapprehensions:
1) "Vision and Mission generally mean the same thing." Nope. I frequently hear people refer to their "vision/mission" or sometimes their "mission/vision." While it's true that an organization's vision statement and mission statement rely on each other so fundamentally that the organization should have both and should use them together, the two statements are quite different. We'll get to how below.
2) "We only have a mission statement." Not good. This implies that the vision statement isn't really important, but to me signals that the organization simply doesn't know what a vision statement is (and why it's important) so, of course, they don't have one.
3) "Vision - mission, whatever." Yikes. This world-weary attitude signals that the organization has given up entirely on expressing the two most fundamental aspects of itself - and usually this is for one of two reasons: either the organization is too busy (read, too in the weeds) to make time for them or because it has no idea how to express them in a meaningful way. Past attempts have likely resulted in something more like slogans, which haven't had the gravitas to last - so they gave up all together.
All of the above result in an incredible amount of busy-ness - lots of running around doing, or maybe just lots of running around, but without meaningful result. How can two little words - vision and mission - amount to the difference between effective and not in an organization? How can that be possible?
It is possible. Eminently so. Here's why.
All organizations (dare I say, all groups of people) operate best when everyone involved understands the answers to the two fundamental questions the vision and mission statements answer:
1) Why does the organization exist, for what desired future condition?
2) What is the specific and perhaps unique way the organization has chosen to work toward this future? Or more simply, what does the organization do and for whom?
Without clear answers to these essential questions, the people in the organization may work hard, but without the larger context that gives meaning to that work. This is like saying "let's get ready for a trip," without specifying where we're going. And obviously, saying "we're going to be the best prepared travelers in the world" doesn't help much. The question still is "where are we going?"
In many organizations, the vision statement describes what the organization will look like at some future point. Being "the greatest coffee company in the world" may inspire the owners or shareholders of said coffee company and may be an important thing to make clear to employees, but a real vision statement speaks to what the world will look like in the future as a result of the organization's work. This is what attracts people to an organization - especially nonprofit organizations.
The vision statement describes the desired future that inspires its work, which hopefully is more than simply being the best at what it does. The vision statement speaks to our hearts and to our imaginations. And a good one is so easy to recognize that it can never be forgotten. That's a vision statement doing its job.
The mission statement, on the other hand, grounds us. It speaks to the head. When we first learn of an organization (just like when we meet a person), we want to know what does it do? What's its job? No fluff, no hyperbole, just get to the point.
What. Why. - Head. Heart.
This is so simple, many organizations seem to have forgotten how important it is to answer these questions. And not just in a small room with a few leaders. Although even that's better than nothing. In fact, this is how these questions have been answered for eons. Someone got the inspiration for a grand destination and chose a course of action to get there. Everyone else follows the appointed leader. But since we are changing to a society that more and more wants to be involved in choosing our destinies and what we do to reach them, it's increasingly important to answer these fundamental questions in an open forum with as many people as will be affected.
Ironically, the nonprofit organization is a model for this since it has needed to operate this way forever. The reason being simply that its livelihood depends on people choosing to support it and become involved rather than simply be paid to do a job. This paradigm is the way all business will be done, since it's no longer good enough, for most of us, to be told what to do. People want to be inspired by a grand destination and clear about what they will do to get there, just as they want a say in both. This is collective leadership in action.
In the end, it's not about being able to define vision and mission. What is important is being able to clearly express the answers to the questions they represent. In this way, everyone that comes into contact with the organization can easily understand its importance in the world - which enables them to choose to be a part of it or not. And for those leading their organizations, opening the process of answering these questions to those who will be affected means a more robust, aligned and synergistic organization. What could be better than that?