Translating mission into vision
A mission, a simple yet durable purpose, is the foundation of strategy for any great company. As with all foundations, leaders should take great care to construct them with exactitude, with the robustness needed to hold an organization steady in changing times and conditions through competitive storms and prosperous periods. Build this first, and build it right.
The mission serves as a necessary but insufficient condition for setting direction. Why? It provides boundaries and general direction for a business, but it doesn’t provide much specific direction for action. To make that happen, you must translate that mission into something tangible. I call that translation a vision (note: as I mentioned last time, you can interchange the titles of mission and vision for these two steps, as long as you don’t change the order or meaning).
As the second step in setting strategy, vision does a few things well:
- Vision makes a mission concrete. It’s tangible. You can see it as something to aim for. It may not express the mission fully (in fact, it rarely does), but it does the best possible job of bringing the mission to life (for now).
- Visions are aspirational. In making the translation of mission, a great vision sets a pretty hairy target. You want the vision to require stretch, to really force a leadership team to think creatively about how to get there.
- Visions can be measured. A vision is a waypoint on a journey of mission fulfillment. As such, you want to ensure that your target isn’t ambiguous.
- Visions are time-bound. Set the hairy target, and give it a due date. I like 3-5 years.
- Visions are pithy. When I guide teams to create clear visions, I make them stop at one sentence. One clear, simple sentence that requires little to no explanation to virtually anyone on your team.
- A vision is an output. Describe your vision in results, not activities or initiatives.
Setting a vision is the hardest step in strategy. Why? It’s extremely hard to distill a company’s fundamental purpose into a single statement with one focus point. To every team I’ve helped do this, the vision feels far too constraining. It can never fully capture the breadth and richness of a mission, so it’s an inevitable oversimplification of what mission fulfillment actually looks like in the real world.
As discomfiting as this can be, it’s absolutely necessary. All companies have challenges with focus. Having facilitated this exercise with dozens of companies, I’ve not yet seen a leadership team fail at this. While hard at first, the end product always seems to feel “right” and necessary to direct the plan’s balance.
Visions should be more carefully guarded from outside audiences than mission statements—they verbalize the competitive aspiration of a team. Competitors would love to see these, so I can’t reveal specific examples. Let’s use illustrations instead.
Nursa’s business is to fill shifts in healthcare, so a specific goal for the number of shifts filled by some future date would make sense for a vision. The same type of vision would make sense for Qwick, as they do the same in hospitality. Alianza provides infrastructure for cloud communications, so an aspirational goal for growth in that business would be a great vision.
For an example closer to home, Kickstart is a venture capital fund. As such, our investors judge us on total returns relative to similar funds. If we want to continue to be the fund of choice compared to our competition, we must be a consistent top performer. A great vision for us is to set a return target that places us in the top tier of funds investing in the same stage.
Once you set a vision, you shouldn’t change it until you reach your goal. It’s designed to set a longer-term target (3-5 years). Underperformance in any one year should be a call to action, not a trigger for revisiting the vision. A vision’s purpose is to align a team around a specific achievement that involves real stretch. Stretch means just that. Stretch. To declare failure and change the goal at the end of one year communicates to the team that you were never that serious about it anyway—the whole plan then loses credibility.
There are two possible exceptions to this rule. First, if, with the benefit of experience, you learn that the vision you set is really an inferior way of crystalizing mission fulfillment relative to a better alternative, then have the discussion and change it. The earlier you can do this, the better. Second, competitive moves can sometimes invalidate (or seriously question) the particular aim of your vision. Don’t ignore circumstances on the ground. If it’s clear you are aiming at the wrong target, change your aim.
A great vision brings the mission to life. It makes concrete how your organization can best achieve your mission, and it’s just a waypoint on a never-ending journey. When you reach that waypoint, you set a new one. It might be similar, or it might be quite different. As long as your reference point is the mission and you are learning along the way, you’ll get it right.
So far, this playbook has focused on results, not actions or initiatives. Actions and initiatives—the things your team will do daily—are the last step in this process.
Always remember: the best strategies begin and end with results. The only way to fulfill your mission is to actually accomplish something meaningful, not just slave away on activities that aren’t getting you there. Mission cements the purpose of your company—why you exist and why anyone should care. Vision sets a stake in the ground, asserting how you can best fulfill your mission in a 3-5 year window, expressed as a tangible achievement. The next logical question is this: what do we need to accomplish to ensure that we achieve the vision? I’ll answer this question next month.