Why Your Mission And Vision Statements Don’t Work (And What To Do About It)
Mission, vision and strategy illustrated
Mission and vision statements can be great means to give an organization focus, coherence, and direction. But often they don’t.
And if not, the time and money spent on formulating them may become a waste of time—or worse, a distraction keeping the organization’s attention away from what it really should be working on. Therefore, it is time to revisit these two strategy evergreens and see what it takes to make them work.
In the two decades of strategy research, teaching, and consulting that I’ve engaged in, I’ve seen no less than nine different reasons why mission and vision statements fail so often. I summarize them below, resulting in nine advices for improvement.
Reason 1: Your Organization Is Not Mission or Vision-Driven
There is this idea that all organizations should be mission and/or vision-driven. But the reality is, they aren’t. Henry Mintzberg and James Waters already showed this in 1985 in their Strategic Management Journal article “Of Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent.”
As they reveal in that article, there are eight different approaches to strategy, one of which is mission-driven (”Ideological Strategy) and one of which is vision-driven (”Entrepreneurial Strategy). This shows that a) there are six other strategies, and b) mission-driven strategy is a different strategy than vision-driven strategy.
If your organization is clearly driven by a strong mission or a strong vision, this is great. It will mean that your people know the mision or vision and live up to it—after all, that is why they probably joined the organization in the first place.
If your organization is not driven by a clear mission or vision, this is great too. Because you don’t need to. I’ve experienced this several times when clients asked me to help them formulate a mission and vision.
My standard response to this question is to ask why. Mostly, the answer is that they want more focus, coherence and direction. When asking further, it often turns out that not a mission or a vision, but a clearer understanding of how to align their products and services with their capabilities and with their markets the actual problem—and the solution.
Advice 1: Assess whether or not your organization is or should be mission or vision-driven. If so, go for it. If not, focus your energy on other strategy-related topics.
Reason 2: You Think That Having Them Is Mandatory
A variation of the first reason, but worthwhile mentioning separately because the implications are different. The idea that every organization needs a mission and vision statement has turned into an almost dogmatic mission-vision-values mantra. One sees this especially often at company’s websites.
It is far from obvious, though, that organizations need this. Because, who says so? There is no evidence that organizations with such statements do better than organizations without them. There is no evidence that they do worse either, but this means that there is no compelling reason for having them. It is primarily a habit. We do it because everyone else is doing it.
Knowing that it is just a habit, not something one should have, can be a relief. Especially for those organizations who are mission or vision-driven. A good example is a health-care organization that I worked with a couple of years ago.
They had spent numerous hours on crafting a mission and vision statement. The result was disappointing: a colourless compromise stating a mission and vision that no one really objected to but that was totally uninspiring.
At the same time, they already had a great 3-minute animated video reflecting their mission and vision in an engaging, clear and even funny way. The word mission or vision did not appear in the video, but it was all about the company’s mission and vision. And the best thing: their employees loved it.
Advice 2: Don’t try to stick to the written mission-vision-values dogma. Any other form and medium is allowed and it may be more effective and engaging.
Reason 3: You Can’t Tell The Difference Between Them
There are no agreed-upon definitions of missions and visions and the terms are often used interchangeably. As a result, most mission and vision statements that I have seen are not really different. They often say more or less the same, but not entirely, and at different levels of abstraction, using different words. That doesn’t really help.
To resolve this confusion, it is useful to make a clear distinction between the two—that is, if you decide to use these terms. I’ve found the distinction that De Wit and Meyer make in their strategy textbook Strategy: Process, Content, Context a useful one.
In short, they argue that a vision is oriented toward the future, to your long-term aims from which medium-term objectives and short-term targets can be derived. One might call it the “point on the horizon” toward which you want to move.
A mission is more oriented towards the present. It contains the organization’s key principles and values and explains why it exists in the first place—its “raison d'être.”
Advice 3: If you go for a mission and vision statement, make them clearly distinct based on an understanding of their different purposes for an organization.
Reason 4: You Make Them Too Generic And Interchangeable
A fourth reason why so many mission and vision statements fail lies in the way they are formulated. Since they reflect an organization’s strategy or direction or purpose at the highest level of abstraction, they are often extremely generic and abstract—and thereby vague.
Of course, a short statement cannot contain a lot of detail. But this doesn’t mean that it should be vague. Making it vague might make it sound inspirational (”to be a truly inspiring company, “be the number one firm,” “drive innovation,” “Excel at everything we do,” etc.). But at the bottomline, no one knows really what is meant.
Another result of the high levels of abstraction is that mission and vision statements become easily interchangeable between organizations.
Just try it. Pick a random mission or vision statement that you find online, preferably from a direct competitor, and see how well it matches your organization. Do the same the other way around. Or use any of the automated mission/vision generators that you can find online (e.g. this one or this one). You can do better than that.
Advice 4: Make your mission and/or vision statements as concrete as possible so that they uniquely reflect your organization.
Reason 5: You Try To Sound Nice And Please Everyone
Another feature of many mission and vision statements that I have seen is their overly socially desirable message and tone. If we are to believe the average mission and vision statement, most commercial businesses exist purely and only to make the world a better place.
Of course, I exaggerate a bit. And of course, you want to sketch an attractive mission and vision that people will find desirable. But a good mission and vision should not try to appeal to everyone. It should be outspoken and reflect choices in what the organization finds important and what not, and where it wants to go, and where not.
In fact, while they should inspire one group of people, they should put off another. Because that is what making choices does. It is one of the basic lessons in strategy and marketing: choose your niche, appeal to them, and forget about others. This works the same for mission and vision statements. Dare to be outspoken.
Advice 5: Make sure your mission and vision reflect clear choices and are directed toward a specific group of people. Embrace the idea that you put off others.
Reason 6: You Lose Touch With Reality
A sixth reason why mission and statements often don’t work as well as they could is that they sometimes lose touch with reality. I don’t mean in terms of abstraction (Reason 4) or trying to be overly nice (Reason 5), but in terms of how realistic the mission and vision are given where an organization currently is.
Good mission and vision statements create movement. This means they don’t merely reflect an organization’s status quo, because that would make them uninspiring and not very useful. However, the same applies to mission and vision statements that are so far from reality that people rather start laughing than that they feel energized. They are too far off.
Therefore, good mission and vision statements have a clear relationship with the organization’s line of business and status quo, but trigger a “creative tension” between what is and what should be. This creative tension happens when the mission or vision is sufficiently different from the status quo, but within reach—with effort.
Advice 6: Formulate your mission and vision in such a way that they trigger a creative tension between where you currently are and where you want to be.
Reason 7: You Create Them For The Outside World
What applies to every form of communication applies to mission and vision statements as well: know your audience. Know for whom you are developing them. What I’ve seen in many cases, is that mission and vision statements tend to be written for a general audience, or “the public”—anyone visiting the organization’s website.
But that is a very broad and often irrelevant target audience. Because what kind of behaviors should the general public show after seeing the organization’s mission and vision statement?
Mission and vision statements may be important for (prospective) customers, suppliers, or strategic partners to see whether there is a good match. However, the most important target audience is mostly employees—current and prospective. The primary purpose of missions and visions is to give an organization focus, coherence and direction. To achieve this, it is the organization’s people who you primarily write them for.
Advice 7: Formulate your mission and vision with your current and prospective employees in mind. Your primary goal is to inspire them to do the right things.
Reason 8: You Don’t Live And Enact Them
A mission statement is not the mission, and a vision statement is not the vision. Like the title of a book, they are not the book, but the short textual version of it—the summary—not the actual content.
Furthermore, missions and visions that are only written down are plainly texts, phrases, words. They only become true missions and visions when they are also felt, lived, acted upon. This is a crucial difference, and it relates back to Reason 1 above. If your organization is not mission or vision driven, then the statements don’t reflect a mission or a vision.
This means that missions and visions are more about people’s attitudes and behaviors than about words. And this means that for effective mission and vision statements, your emphasis should be on enacting them, on putting them into practice—on turning words into deeds.
Advice 8: Don’t stop with the words. Focus your efforts on a change in attitudes and behaviors. These are far more important than the precise statements you use.
Reason 9: You Formulate Rather Than Form Them
The final reason why so many missions and visions fail stems from the way they are developed. Not rarely is this a word exercise where a group of people is sitting in a room, watching a slide with a draft version and discussing the particular words they don’t like.
There are two problems with this approach. First, it doesn’t sufficiently differentiate between formulating a mission or vision and forming it. Formulating is about the words. Forming, though, is much more about the ideas behind the words, about their meaning.
The second problem is the number of people involved. Although many people may or should be involved during the forming step—to embrace their viewpoints and to engage them—formulating works best if done by one or few people. The reason is that having too many people involved in that stage, leads to the colourless compromise referred to earlier.
Advice 9: Separate between the forming and formulating steps. Involve many people in the first and only few in the second.
In short, summarizing the nine advices in one overall advice: do it well and craft your mission and vision along the lines of these advices, or stop worrying about them and spend your precious time on other strategy-related topics.
Dr Jeroen Kraaijenbrink is an accomplished strategy educator, speaker, writer and consultant with over two decades of experience bridging academia and industry. Drawing from cognitive psychology, humanism, Saint Benedict, and a wide range of other sources, he is the author of numerous articles on strategy, sustainability and personal leadership and five books: Strategy Consulting, No More Bananas, Unlearning Strategy, and the two-volume practical guide to strategy The Strategy Handbook. He is an active Forbes contributor where he writes about strategy, leadership and how to embrace the complexity and uncertainty of this world. Jeroen has a PhD in industrial management, teaches strategy at the University of Amsterdam Business School, and has helped many midsized and larger companies across the engineering, manufacturing, healthcare and financial services industries.