Getting your vision, mission and purposes statements in shape for success


Tim London: "Your vision statement is probably useless. Here's how to make it better."

Dr Tim London, senior lecturer at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, explains how to create vision, mission and purpose statements that have an impact – internally and externally.
Most organisations will now have some version of a vision, mission, or purpose statement. It has become common practice to have this statement on some combination of the organisation’s website, letterhead, or major internal and external communications. However, while having such a statement can be a good thing, the reality is that most organisations’ statements are fatally flawed, making them little more than space fillers on the “About Us” tab.

While every one of these statements will need to be unique to every organisation, to make them truly impactful, there are some general tips on how to improve them as well as a few common missteps to avoid.

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Most importantly, be clear about what the “statement” is meant to convey. Specifically, every organisation should be clear about its purpose (defining why it exists), its values (what is most important to the organisation and its people), and its mission (what people in the organisation do, within the scope of the values, to accomplish the purpose).

Most of the statements created for organisations muddle these three factors up, which make them hard to decipher and harder still for people to use in making sense of how their work fits with the aims of the organisation. Organisations should have separate statements for purpose, values, and mission; these should be distinct from each other, but each should refer back to the other two pieces to demonstrate coherence.

If your organisation already has a vision statement, review it and see if it’s clear about all three facets; if one is in the works, make sure you are clear from the beginning about defining how they are distinct and also where they are connected.

This can all sound like overkill, but consider the difference in terms of sustainability and adaptability between a company that thinks its purpose is “make and process film” and one who recognises that that is their current mission (just what they do), but their actual reason for existing (their purpose) is “helping people capture important moments”. The former is killed off as soon as digital cameras become common, while the latter at least has a fighting chance to continue on if they switch to creating memory cards, software, or lenses.

The process for creating these three interconnected statements on purpose, values, and mission is similarly important. While it can be beneficial to bring in outside expertise such as consultants or academics, it is essential that as many organisational stakeholders as possible are heavily involved in the creation of the statements.

This is important for two reasons: the first is that more stakeholders means a greater diversity of viewpoints will be brought to bear on determining what the organisation is actually about; related to this, there needs to be buy-in for the statements if they are to actually be lived in the organisation and not just espoused on the website. People at all levels of the organisation can bring their unique perspectives to bear and this creates greater insight into issues that would not be readily apparent from the outside or from the C-suite offices.

It also means that people from different functional areas, across an organisation, have a direct connection to the statements, making it much more likely that values and purpose statements are translated into action.

Enacting the purpose and values of an organisation is often problematic; in many organisations, people may vaguely know what the various vision/purpose/values statements are, but they often don’t really understand what they mean or how they apply to their work.

Similarly, even when the purpose and values are clearly articulated, people don’t see them being put into action in the organization, meaning that they assume the statements are empty. For example, if an organisational value is “innovation” but applicants are not assessed for this during the hiring process, while advanced degrees or ten years of experience are required as selection criteria, there is an obvious disconnect which makes the values statement essentially meaningless in practice.

This type of disconnect happens frequently, for example:

  • An espoused value of “respect”, but jerks are promoted because they are your top seller,
  • A statement that the organisation is like a “family”, but there is limited maternity or paternity leave available,
  • The purpose statement speaks to “helping people”, but discussions of profit take up the majority of key meetings,
  • “Honesty” is espoused as a value, but people in leadership positions routinely denigrate those that make mistakes or put down those who question their decisions.

Finally, and perhaps counterintuitively in an environment where we are recognising how essential inclusion and diversity are to successful organisations, your purpose and value statements should not try to include every single person. Because your organisation cannot do everything, and would collapse if it tried, what your statements should do is clearly signal to people the few things that you and your organisation are passionate about.

They will then help you attract people who are similarly passionate about those things; of course, these people are likely to come from incredibly diverse backgrounds and bring diversity of thought, approach, and experience. Being clear about your purpose and values enables you to get people who align with those, exclude those whose passions reside elsewhere, and focus the efforts of you and your people on those few things you’re all committed to.

As a concrete example, my personal purpose is “creating learning to make the world a better place”. If you’re not interested in that, that’s fine! But if I’m picking a team, I want people who are as committed to that purpose as I am. Then, I want to make sure that I’m getting a wide range of viewpoints on creating that learning. In other words, I only know what I know, so I need to hire people whose lives will bring in more insights and different perspectives on learning. That diversity of experience and thought is still focused, however, on a shared purpose, making our working together a place where we might disagree on the best way to solve problems, but where we always agree with what we’re trying to accomplish.
Organizations that have this mix of clarity of purpose and diversity of thought almost always have clearly defined and extensively communicated statements of why they exist and what is most important about what they do.

If you want to ensure the statements on your “About Us” page are as impactful as possible, here are a few tips:
1)    Make sure that you have clear statements of purpose (why you exist), values (between three and five core values, no more, that explain what’s most important to the organisation and its people), and what you currently do that meets those values and helps you achieve your purpose (this is your actual mission).
2)    Develop a plan for engaging people across the organisation in the creation of new statements or review of the current statements.
3)    Ensure that your policies and procedures align with these statements. If you’re changing your statements, it is almost guaranteed that you will need to make changes to how you do some things in your organisation. If not, you will find that your statements do not align with your people’s lived experiences, and they will assume the statements are just empty words.
4)    Finally, your people are what are really going to drive your organisation forward. It is imperative that you consider how best to get people who are as passionate about your organisation’s purpose and values as you are on board.

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