This is the fourth article in a series on creating and managing an organization’s strategy

Mission means purpose. Vision brings purpose to life. What comes next?

This is the fourth article in a series on creating and managing an organization’s strategy

This is the fourth article in a series on creating and managing an organization’s strategy. Click for articles one, two, and three of this series.

If you’ve followed my series of articles on strategy, you know why every organization needs a mission. You also know how a vision expresses that mission in an aspirational, measurable way. Now what? At this stage, most companies would go straight to action planning. Fine, we have these cool statements. Now let’s get on to talking about what we’re going to do day-to-day.

Hold your horses. There’s an essential third step to this process. The vision expresses the accomplishment of the mission at a very high level. But reaching that vision doesn’t happen without supporting achievements that, when combined together, make it all possible. This sounds a little vague, so let’s bring it to life with a concrete example: SpaceX.

SpaceX’s stated mission is “To revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” Among many other things, fulfilling this mission would require dozens of launches, likely more than NASA and the Russian Space Agency have completed combined. So, a logical early vision would be to build a reusable launch vehicle that lands safely back on earth after each trip to space. To do this, you’d have to engineer an entirely new product architecture with radical innovations. You’d need enormous financial resources to build, test, and modify that product to production readiness, buffering for big failures along the way. Perhaps most importantly, you’d need the best people in the business along with the right supporting organization to accomplish what powerful governments haven’t. 

Each is a big achievement all by itself. As a group, they form the recipe for reaching the vision. I call these “success pillars” (hat tip to Mark Frank at SonderMind for the nomenclature here). In the strategy process I’m describing, success pillars fulfill some critical requirements. Specifically, they are:

  • Outputs, not inputs. These aren’t “to-dos.” They are essential achievements to reach the vision.
  • Synergistic. No one pillar can do the job. Together, they work magic.
  • Measurable. You can’t know what you have achieved if you can’t measure it.
  • Durable. You won’t change these often. Some you won’t change ever.

To bring this to life, let’s use a fictional company that I’ll call HealthSoft (a company by this name exists in the Middle East, but I didn’t want to spend hours thinking of a new name, so just go with me here). HealthSoft builds software to create interoperability between all of the electronic health records (EHR) systems in the world. 

So let’s apply what we’ve discussed so far. Given HealthSoft’s business, you could imagine a mission like this:

To make every person’s entire health and medical history available at the point of care anytime, anywhere.

While this may not be the most elegant language, it meets all the tests of a great mission. It’s a clear statement of purpose. It describes a never-ending quest. And it is uniquely applicable to this company and why it exists.

"There’s nothing magic about four, but I advise companies to define no more than five well-chosen success pillars."

Armed with that mission, let’s now try a vision:

Achieve seamless interoperability of the top three EHR systems by 2027.

By the criteria I defined before, that’s a solid vision. It’s concrete. It’s measurable. It’s aspirational. And it has a deadline.

Now, onto the success pillars. Remember, these are the big achievements that make the vision possible. What might they be for HealthSoft? Consider these:

Product Perfection. The designs, interfaces, and data structures of EHR platforms are a big, incompatible mess. They use different terminology for the same things. For data fields, some use structured menus; others use free text. All have interfaces to standalone systems for lab results, imaging studies, and many more. Creating interoperability between these systems will be one of the greatest software challenges ever tackled (which is why it hasn’t been done yet, by the way).

Perfection sounds like an extreme standard, but when you are displaying critical health information to a physician in an ER making minute-to-minute decisions, you can’t get data fields wrong. Fail to display a medication allergy correctly, and the patient may die. Yeah, let’s go with perfection.

Partnership Excellence. In the US, the top three electronic health record (EHR) systems are Epic, Cerner (owned by Oracle), and MEDITECH—three big companies duking it out for share in a fully saturated market. When differentiation is key to winning a customer, all of the motives are to not work together. Add to that the complexity of the software, and you have a partnership challenge tantamount to achieving permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace. Fail to do this, and you have no company.

Team Awesomeness (I know, awesomeness sounds silly, but let me have my fun). Think of the first two success pillars I just named. The hardest healthcare software product ever built will demand the absolute best and most experienced engineers. Many will need to know the codebases of the top EHR systems firsthand. Testing and QA must be flawless.

The most problematic partnership challenge will require leaders with deep, trusting relationships at the most senior levels of the major EHR vendors. They will need to be expert negotiators creative in crafting win/win agreements that could feel threatening to every participating company—and on and on. Is an awesome team needed? Hell, yes.

Financial Health. You don’t bootstrap a company taking on a challenge this big. The leadership will have to raise large financing rounds at every stage. It’s just a guess, but I’d say you don’t get to a working beta product with less than $30-40M, perhaps a lot more. Investors who want to see first revenue early will run away from a company like this. This team will need leaders that are exceptional at fundraising and extraordinarily disciplined in spending on anything other than product and partnership development. 

There you have it. Four success pillars for HealthSoft. None stands alone, but each is critical to achieving the vision in support of the mission. And in thinking about this company and what it’s trying to do, it’s hard to imagine others that would be more important than these four. There’s nothing magic about four, but I advise companies to define no more than five well-chosen success pillars. It’s a good forcing mechanism for focus. And in young companies (all companies, really), focus is everything.

So, the first three steps are done. Mission, vision, and success pillars. Next month we’ll talk about where the really important strategic choices are made—in what you choose to measure. 

An enthusiastic investor at Kickstart Fund, Curt is a consultant-turned-CEO-turned-Nike exec. This wealth of experience allows him to be a tremendous resource to Mountain West startups in the areas of executive leadership, strategy, and executive coaching. He’s passionate about helping build. To him, there’s nothing more rewarding than helping a small, scrappy team build something great. Supporting others in their growth, development, and success is the most gratifying thing in his life. He has ample opportunity to do so as he sits on the boards of 12+ companies. As an investor, his focus is on healthcare, health tech, consumer, gig economy, and marketplace companies. Curt is also crazy about cycling, skiing, photography, and collecting rare and antiquarian books.