Updated: May 19, 2022
Imagine for a moment that you are stranded on a deserted island with two other friends. It is in the tropics, so the beach is pristine, and the temperature is warm, but you are stranded nonetheless. The boat that you were sailing on is still accessible off the reef that it struck, but you see that it will likely fully submerge in the next few hours, and so you have a small window of time to get to it and retrieve what you can from it. The question is, what is it that you will retrieve? What items would you prioritize getting back to shore in the short time that you have? Do you take back your survival items, in order to take care of yourself for the foreseeable future? Do you take back items that you can use to get yourself to rescue? Do you take the flare gun, sunscreen and rum, in order to enjoy the time you have on the beach until you are rescued?
Each of these options is dependent on your perspective and your goals. How you expend your energy and limited resources will be dependent on whether you anticipate needing to keep yourself alive for a long time on the island, if you plan to get off of the island yourself, or if you anticipate being rescued within a matter of days. This will impact the items you retrieve from the boat, how you ration the supplies that you retrieved, and the way in which you spend your time during your waking hours. Believe it or not, this is the perfect context within which to discuss the notion of vision and mission.
Chances are high that you have had some form of interaction with the concepts of vision and/or mission at your workplace, or with organizations you have been involved in. While there are many businesses that do an inspiring job at living out their mission as they move in the direction of their vision, it is not uncommon for businesses to go through the process of developing a vision and mission simply because it is “the thing to do”. This quite often results in the token placement of their vision and mission statements on the website and, perhaps, on some feature walls of the office space, without continued engagement with them until 5 years later, when it is time to do the exercise all over again…because that’s what businesses do. Right? It can be so much more than that, and my hope is to illustrate this in the context of our favourite “what-if” scenario introduced above; being stranded on a tropical island.
A quick note before diving in: Vision and mission statements are something that can be established and adopted by businesses, not-for-profits, sports teams, political parties, or any other organization, and even individuals and families. In fact, there is a lot of value in establishing a vision and mission statement for yourself and your family. In this article I’ll be referring primarily to businesses, but certainly feel free to extrapolate the principals to other contexts.
A vision statement is essentially a short and simple statement outlining where a business wants to be in the future. The idea is to inspire and give direction. This often looks something like “To be the leader of XYZ industry and make a lasting difference that will change people’s lives for the better”. I know that sounds a bit blasé, but it’s generic. It is often flavored for the specific business. For example, Marriott International (at the time of writing) states their vision as “To be the world’s favorite travel company”. The vision for Google (at the time of writing) is “to provide access to the world’s information in one click”. These are concise statements that point and inspire people (employees, shareholders, customers) to where the company is going.
Getting back to the island, you may have a vision statement such as “To see our families and friends once again”, if your overall objective is getting off the island and if there is uncertainty around rescue. Or, if you feel that rescue is certain and will be soon, perhaps your vision statement would be “To create the best and most relaxing tropical vacation ever”. Both of these are perfectly reasonable vision statements, and both set a trajectory of different priorities; it would just be very important to ensure that the underlying premise is correct. This is an important note to emphasize about vision statements. As in the island scenario, if rescue is certain and will be soon, then establishing a vision that would have you sail yourself off the island in search of help may not be the best, given the context. Conversely, if rescue is not certain, a vision statement that would have you retrieve non-essential items from your boat and then relax all day, trying to make it the greatest tropical vacation ever, would also not be the best given the context. So, understand the context that your business is operating in, and create a vision statement that works well within that context for your overall objectives, because your vision statement should provide a clear guide that will help you navigate decision making now and into the future within that context.
A mission statement gets a bit more granular from the vision statement in that, in support of the vision, it defines some high level goals, what your business does, and how it does it (some mission statements even briefly describe types of products and services offered). Looking at Marriott again, at the time of writing, their mission statement is “To enhance the lives of our customers by creating and enabling unsurpassed vacation and leisure experiences”. This defines some goals which, if met, will contribute to their vision “to be the world’s favorite travel company”. Looking at Google at the time of writing, their mission statement is phrased as “Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Achieving this mission will support Google’s vision “to provide access to the world’s information in one click.”
In our island scenario, if you believed that rescue was unlikely, and your vision was “To see our families and friends once again”, then perhaps your mission statement may be something like “To build a reliable raft and master navigation skills required to sail to civilization.” Or, if you anticipated being rescued in a few days and your vision was “To create the best and most relaxing tropical vacation ever”, then perhaps your mission statement might be something like “To create the ultimate hammock and ensure there is a constant supply of Mai Tais and drinking water until we are rescued.”
The Importance of Alignment
In looking at the differing vision and mission statements in our island scenario, you can see how these would lead to different priorities, in terms of how resources are used, and how time is spent. The person who has made it their mission to build a raft and sail off to find civilization will certainly have different priorities than the person who has made it their mission to build the ultimate hammock and concoct the perfect Mai Tai. Not only does this highlight the impact of differing vision and mission statements for your business, it also emphasizes the importance of ensuring your team understands the vision and mission of your business. If your business does not have a stated vision and mission, or if it does but your team does not know what they are or is not aligned with them, you may find that there will be a mix of priorities within your business, with focus of time and resources in areas that really may not be aligned with, or may even be competing with, where you want your business to go. Establishing a vision and mission statement, and aligning your team with these, will help to get everyone rowing in one direction…or, I suppose, working together to make the ultimate hammock.
Hanging on the Wall vs. Your Tool Belt
We have seen that establishing a vision and a mission are important. Once you have done this, please ask yourself this question out loud, “Am I going to hang these on my wall, or on my tool belt?”. Why? Because so many businesses go through the process of coming up with what may be the perfect vision and mission statements, they put them on the wall, and maybe on some pens, coffee mugs and letterhead, and that is where they remain for the next 5 years, until the next repetition of this exercise.
As discussed and illustrated above, your vision and your mission are meant to give you guidance in making decisions about how resources are allocated, how time is spent, what types of projects to work on, and who you want to hire. They are also meant to inspire people to join you on your mission as you work toward your vision. Hang these on your tool belt to use daily as you make decisions, and as you operate more and more as the business you have envisioned. And, in the same way tools need to be serviced and sharpened, be willing to service and sharpen your vision and mission statements so they continue working for you. Perhaps the context within which you had initially drafted your vision and mission statements has changed. In our island scenario, perhaps a plane flies over the island and the pilots indicate to you that they see that you are in need of rescue. The context of your situation has changed, and so perhaps your mission can change from making a raft or building a shelter that will last through monsoon season, to relaxing during your final days on the island. Continually assess how well your vision and mission are serving as guides for decision making within your operating context, and sharpen them accordingly.
So much more can be said here, including the importance of your company’s values, and how they align with your vision and mission. As a next step, consider how well your vision and mission statements are serving as guides for decision making. Consider how aligned your team and your business strategy are with your vision and mission. If you do not yet have a vision or mission, then circle a date on the calendar to spend a day thinking this over. It is incredible how time invested in doing this will pay dividends in the future, in the form of aligned and coordinated efforts that further your business in the specific direction you want it to go. You may even want to find a nice tropical island on which to dream up your vision and mission.
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