Vision and Mission Statements Revisited

VisionI’m sure you have had a chance to write a vision or mission statement at one time or another in your career. In my 25 years in high-tech corporate life, I’ve seen hundreds. Unfortunately, most of them were poorly written because the authors failed to capture the true goal of a vision statement, and missed the boat completely on what they called a Mission Statement. I think the reasons for this are obvious…we were never taught how to write them properly. Isn’t that the reason for most of our problems in life? In any case, let’s begin with the Vision statement. 

Vision Statement

Vision statements are usually written at a high level in a business, often for the corporation as a whole, a large business unit, or for a major program. They are intended to describe the long term goals of an organization and should be used only if the group is expected to be around for a while and have a fairly stable purpose, perhaps lasting decades or longer. A vision is a future-looking, lofty statement, without a timeline or metrics, that establishes a ‘vision’ of what life will be like when all the goals of the group are achieved. It should be written in highly motivating words that reach deep down into the soul of every employee, making them feel their jobs are worthwhile and thus motivating them to achieve great things. Some examples of a vision statement are:

“We will be the nation that leads the world in the colonization of space, spreading the seeds of humanity among the stars, ensuring human survival for eternity.” (pretty lofty, huh?)

or, more down to Earth,

“We will be the world’s largest, best and most admired provider of project management solutions for large enterprises, delighting our customers and providing our shareholders with unsurpassed growth and value.”

or

“We will create the world’s first knowledge base that completely characterizes the human genome, unlocking the secrets of our body’s machinery and allowing researchers to develop perfect solutions to all our health problems.” (I’m looking forward to this one.)

You get the idea. Lofty goals, future looking, hard to do, no metrics and no timeline. Having established a good vision, we must try to achieve it. That is where the mission statement(s) come in.

Mission Statement

A mission statement describes a large step a company will take to move closer to its vision. The mission, obviously, should be connected to the vision. It must include a timeline and a metric of some sort that, once reached, will make it obvious that the mission is accomplished. Perhaps the most famous mission statement, although he called it a ‘goal’ in his speech in 1961, was Kennedy’s, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” All the elements of a well written mission are there. A metric, “…landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth”, and a timeline, “…before this decade is out.” Other examples of mission statements might be:

“We will decrease our inventories by 20%, while maintaining or surpassing current shipments and profit margins, by October 1st of this year.”

or

“We will improve our product quality to six-sigma levels, while maintaining or surpassing our profit margins and shipment levels, by the end of this calendar year.”

The mission does not say how the results will be achieved. That is the purpose of the plans and work-breakdown-structures for the projects or programs that will be chartered to achieve the mission. But, the mission sets the high-level goal for those projects. I hope this all makes logical and pragmatic sense and that it encourages the project managers among you to offer suggestions to the writers of those high-level vision statements and for everyone to write better mission statements. If written properly, these two critical pieces of business planning can greatly clarify for everyone exactly what is expected of them and hopefully will ignite the fires within.


Loyal Mealer has more than 25 years of engineering and management experience in R&D, manufacturing, and information technology. He has worked in the high-tech industry as a design engineer, project manager, section manager and manufacturing engineering manager and has led teams that included virtual and telecommuting contributors from all over the world. He is an expert in the use of collaborative technologies for virtual teams and has led advanced technology research teams chartered with improving the effectiveness of virtual workers. You can write him at loyal@commutezero.com. He is currently building a virtual work support site at http://commutezero.com/. Feel free to visit and contribute to the effort.

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3 thoughts on “Vision and Mission Statements Revisited”

  1. Right on, Loyal! I have had endless arguments about the difference between mission and vision statements (as if it mattered squat to what was happening day-to-day in the business!) and found many big companies reversing them on their corporate web sites. Bottom line for me is that the vision is the long-term ideal which is so extraordinary that it will never be reached, and the mission is the big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG) that is one giant leap toward that ideal. Since I’m in the business of enabling people to achieve seemingly impossible goals I focus on the mission statement, but always in the context of the bigger dream, the vision. No need to spend hours or countless thousands of dollars word-smithing something clever. Just so people “get it” . . . feel the magnetic attraction of wanting to help make it happen.

    – Kimberly Wiefling, Author, Scrappy Project Management, one of the top-selling English language project management books in the world (available to cynics everywhere for just about $20!)

  2. That sounds great. What people need is some good examples of extremely well written vision and mission statements that take all this into account. Writing a good vision statement is like writing a wonderful short story. As such, it takes some excellent writing skills, creativity, eloquence, and a solid knowledge of the business. Since that combination is so rare in one individual, it’s no wonder these things are so poorly written in general. I suppose one could enlist the help of a speech writer. Hmmm, perhaps there is a new business here: “Bob’s Vision Statements. $20 for a vision statement, $200 for a better one, $2,000 for a best seller.”

  3. I’m reading “Made to Stick” right now and this made me think about how vision and mission statements should tell a story that is memorable.

    The brothers Heath talk about 6 principles:
    1) Simplicity
    2) Unexpectedness
    3) Concreteness
    4) Credibility
    5) Emotions
    6) Stories

    I would love to see a follow-up post on the site from Loyal or others about not only how to craft these statements, but how to roll them out to employees in a meaningful way and make them stick.

    Josh Nankivel

    pmStudent.com

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