Why Mission and Vision Statements Seldom Drive Discussion -- and Why That Should Change

Nov. 8, 2016
There is great value in actually using your mission or vision statement to generate discussions about how well (or not) the organization is doing in fulfilling that mission and vision.

I’ve found that one of the surest ways to get managers to start staring out the window is to initiate a conversation about “mission and vision.”   All managers know that their organization is supposed to have a mission and a vision to put on the website and inside the front cover of the annual report.  Occasionally, the mission and vision is brought up when making sales calls or presentations to shareholders.  But that’s about it.

And you can’t really blame them.  Let’s be honest: Do you know your own organization’s mission statement or vision statement?  Do you know, for certain, if your organization even has a mission statement or vision statement?  I’d venture to guess the answer to the first question is “No” and the answer to the second is something like “Maybe?”  Why such poor treatment for concepts that everyone agrees (or, at least, gives lip service to) are important pieces of any organization’s strategy?

There are a number of reasons for this condition, but I think the most important is simply that mission and vision statements seldom if ever actually drive much discussion, much less action.  When was the last time anyone outside of marketing ever mentioned your organization’s mission or vision statement?  I’ll wager it’s been a long, long time.  Can you point to one decision, initiative, or project within your organization that was discussed and evaluated in terms of its consistency with the organization’s mission and vision?  My guess is that you can’t. 

If all this is true, why should an organization bother even to create a mission or vision statement?  I believe so because, properly considered, mission and vision statements can help organizations 1.)  stay on track, and 2.) assess their own effectiveness. 

Let’s look at an example or two to illustrate what I mean.

First, let’s look at Caterpillar’s vision statement.  (I’m using Caterpillar because it was easy to find on the internet.)  I want to emphasize that we’re not going to critique the statement itself.  The whole discussion of “What should a mission or vision statement say?” pushes us back toward fruitless wordsmithing. Rather we’re going to discuss how Caterpillar might use the vision statement that it has. 

Here’s Caterpillar’s Vision Statement  2020:

  • We are recognized as the leader everywhere we do business
  • Our products, services and solutions help our customers succeed
  • Our distribution system is a competitive advantage
  • Our supply chain is world class
  • Our business model drives superior results
  • Our people are talented and live Our Values in Action
  • Our work today helps our customers create a more sustainable world
  • Our financial performance consistently rewards our stockholders

Each of the components of the vision statement suggests a goal or initiative that can be measured and evaluated.  If CAT is using this vision statement to its own advantage, it has developed measures for each of the components of the vision and is regularly assessing its own performance against those measures.  Everyone in the company knows and understands these measures and is clear on their connection back to these vision elements.  There are regular discussions within Caterpillar at all levels that start with a question like, “Are we recognized as the leader everywhere we do business?  How do we know?” or “Is our distribution system, in fact, providing a competitive advantage?  How do we know?”  Everyone at Caterpillar is taking part, at some point or other, in these sorts of inquiries.  Further, the company is rewarding its associates, from the C-suite on down, commensurate with the company’s performance against these measures.  In Caterpillar’s case, this shouldn’t be difficult to do because the vision statement is well crafted and amenable to such efforts.

Let’s look at one more, this one a mission statement from Patagonia, maker of outdoor clothing and equipment:

Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

We see that this mission statement is crafted a bit differently than Caterpillar’s vision but it holds the same potential for assessing present performance and determining future action by continually discussing questions like, “Do we build the best product now?” “What are we doing to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis and is it working?”  “How can we further reduce the harm our operations or products might be creating?” or “Is this new product/project/initiative consistent with and does it support our mission?”

There’s no particular value in a mission or vision statement in and of itself.  There is, however, great value in actually using your mission or vision statement to generate discussions about how well (or not) the organization is doing in fulfilling that mission and vision.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. Bohan has a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master of science in organizational development from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has published articles in National Productivity Review, Quality Progress and ASTD's Training and Development Journal. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance. Bohan can be reached at [email protected].

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