What is the difference between mission and vision statements? This is a very common question and you will find many different and conflicting answers. They leave us in a state of confusion, wondering if it really matters. Leadership expert Jim Collins describes the situation in an HBR article titled ‘Building Your Company’s Vision’:
“Many executives thrash about with mission statements and vision statements. Unfortunately, most of those statements turn out to be a muddled stew of values, goals, purposes, philosophies, beliefs, aspirations, norms, strategies, practices, and descriptions. They are usually a boring, confusing, structurally unsound stream of words that evoke the response “true, but who cares?””
I Was Very Confused About Vision and Mission Statements
I will confess, this describes my own viewpoint on the topic up to a couple of years ago. Having a vision is critical because it describes a future state that sets the direction of an organization. Good visions also describe what it is like to achieve that future state. These visions act as yardsticks to assess progress and motivate the organization to achieve them.
JFK provided such a vision in his man on the moon speech:
“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.”
The outcome is very clear, and it is compelling and aspirational, motivating a nation to get behind it.
Clarifying The Difference Between Vision and Mission Statements
So what about a mission? I used to consider a mission as optional, but of late my view has changed. I now believe a mission statement plays a very important role in any organization. Before I get into that, let’s first tackle what a mission statement is. A mission is an organization’s enduring purpose, it describes what it is here to do. The mission describes activity, not a a goal or an outcome. In contrast, vision statements describe outcomes as you see in JFK’s statement.
This distinction is key. I understood why describing a goal is important. But why is describing what we do important, isn’t it obvious? Sometimes it is, but it deserves a deeper examination. Let’s use Tesla as an example. I expected Tesla to have a mission to lead the transition to the electric car. While this maybe true, their mission is actually much broader. It is:
‘To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.’
Tesla’s mission describes a bigger and more compelling purpose. It is a purpose that describes the scope of work the company will undertake. Describing this scope of work is critical for any company. It outlines what they will and will not do. It is the essence of their strategy and I’ve come to recognize this as the value of a thoughtful company mission. Companies don’t usually fail from lack of ideas, they more often fail because of lack of focus. They drown in a sea of distractions. A good mission provides the focus a successful company needs.
Take a look at your company’s vision and mission. Does the vision describe a clear outcome? Does it’s mission clearly describe what it will and by definition, not do? If the answer to either is no, you have a problem that needs to be addressed.