Should we have a vision or a mission, and what is the difference? This is a common question. Especially when working with organizations to help them craft their leadership vision. This week was no different. I wish I had a simple consistent answer. As is often the case, my answer was it depends.
What do we mean by mission and vision?
Let’s start with describing the what a mission and a vision are. A mission is an organization’s enduring purpose. In essence, it is what they do. A vision describes a future aspirational state. This is what the organization looks like often 3-5 years into the future. The vision provides direction, it explains to the organization where we are going and why.
A compelling vision commonly has a goal. JFK’s ‘Man on the Moon’ declaration is a great example: “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 the Earth.” JFK outlines a clear and aspirational goal, and it motivated a nation to get behind his vision.
Should we have a mission or a vision?
So let’s come back to the question, should we have a vision or a mission. For me this isn’t a question of having a vision or a mission. The real question is do we need a vision and a mission? I say this because every organization needs a vision of where they are going. Without a clear vision they are likely to drift and not fulfill their potential. What extra value does a mission bring?
A mission describes an organization’s reason for being. Why are we here? If this reason is obvious, then its mission is implied and clear to everyone involved. For many organizations, the mission is not obvious. Let’s take a look at Google. What is their reason for being? To provide internet search tools? Are they a technology company? A software company? Their stated mission is ‘To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’.
Having a clear mission when there are unlimited possibilities provides necessary direction to the organization. Google does a good job of balancing specificity and breadth. Its mission is directive and it provides enough latitude to include a variety of possibilities within its scope.
The next time someone asks you ‘should we have a vision or a mission?’, I hope you respond with it depends. And now you can provide a clear explanation why.