Make it make sense!

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As organizations undertake major changes, (e.g. new leadership, a merger, a new product or customer, an infusion of funding) they often want to take stock of where they’ve been and where they’re going. And that means taking a fresh look at the well-known trio of Mission – Vision – Values. More recently, as many organizations are focusing on Purpose as well, questions typically start to arise: “Do I need all of them?” and “How do these all fit together?” “Where do we start?” Thinking about an organization at such a Fundamental (see what I did there) level can be confusing, challenging and frustrating to the point where some just kick the can down the road and put it off as long as possible. Others put together a team that throws some ideas together in very ad-hoc fashion to get it done as fast as they can – just to get it done. But take heart – the process of developing these foundational elements of your company doesn’t have to be a painful, awkward “what is the point of this exercise anyway?” kind of thing. There’s a method to the madness that can actually galvanize an organization and help define culture in a meaningful, enduring way. Here’s how we think about devising Purpose, Mission, Vision and Values that will have a positive impact on your organization.

Start with Why

With apologies to Simon Sinek, we’re big believers in Purpose as being the most important building block of your organization. We’ve written in the past about the Power of Purpose, and the impact it can have on organizations. A purpose statement shouldn’t include any mention of products, services or categories. A simple 7-10 word statement about why the company does what it does. We like the purpose statement that Mercedes used for a long time. “Mercedes epitomizes a lifetime of achievement.” Nothing about cars. Just about the emotion of pride, and demonstrating to the world you’ve achieved. Establishing the reason your organization exists sets a direction for the organization that acts as its north star. When you know your company’s “Why” you can assess every initiative and business decision in the context of that purpose. It can be an incredibly powerful force for uniting an organization and prioritizing its activities. If you need a primer on creating purpose and who should be involved in the process, feel free to reference some of our past writing here. Without your Purpose, your mission, vision and values can easily start to lose focus. They quickly become a group of disjointed statements and declarations that come across as platitudes. They often feel very generic, and as a result squander any opportunity to define and enhance a company’s culture and way of working. 

I have a vision

We often hear companies talk about Mission-Vision- Values as a group, and many organizations like to start with mission. We think vision follows much more naturally after Purpose than Mission does. If you have already established WHY your organization exists, the next logical step is to define WHAT you’re trying to achieve. That’s what we view as the role of the Vision statement. It projects into the future and says, “This is the way we’d like the world to change as a result of our efforts.” Nike has a great Vision Statement:

Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.

*If you have a body, you are an athlete.

They see the world full of inspiration and innovation – for anyone who has a body. This is how things should be according to Nike. As with this example, Vision Statements usually don’t get bogged down in products or features, similar to Purpose. Vision should be visionary, not anchored to a specific product or category.

Can I talk about products now? Please!

Yes, the good old Mission Statement gets more concrete. Rejoice left brain people – this is your statement. It talks about HOW you plan to achieve your Vision and purpose. Which types of problems you’re trying to solve and the things that you will create, sell and market that will help you make the more abstract Vision come to fruition. In the past, we’ve railed against the Mission Statement because it’s so narrow-minded and tends to be too long. Without a clear relationship to the larger purpose, the mission becomes a “Duh!” sort of thing. You make cars? OK, so what? You provide network security consulting? And I care because…? Unless there’s a clear relationship to something bigger, the mission statement seems like something no one else asked for or cares about. But take heart, Mission Statement fans – if yours relates clearly to your Vision and Purpose, it actually feels relevant and useful. Take Nike’s Mission Statement.

Create groundbreaking sports innovations, make our products sustainably, build a creative and diverse global team, and make a positive impact in communities where we live and work.

I’d argue that everything after “groundbreaking sports innovations” is pretty generic. It could pertain to just about any company. But when it’s tied back to the Vision of bringing inspiration and innovation to athletes, it all makes a lot more sense. Nike wants to make a positive impact in communities because they’re trying to inspire people – not just because they all decided it would be a nice thing to do. The vision is the context for the mission. Generally missions just aren’t that exciting. They’re more statements of fact and categories and details that most people don’t care about. They’re the HOW of your business. I still maintain companies can live without them, but if you feel compelled to talk about your product in your missions statement, please please please do it in the context of your larger purpose and vision.

Values follow from purpose and vision

We’ve written about values in the past but I want to clarify upfront that those values are Fundamental Values – they are very different from the values most people think of in the Mission Vision Values trio. These are what we refer to as Operational Values. They are developed to help define the ways people and the organization will conduct themselves. They are the things that are prioritized and promoted within the company’s culture – it’s these Operational Values that I’ll be discussing here.

How many companies have you seen espousing Diversity? Honesty? Dedication to their community? The environment? All of these things are admirable and worthwhile, without a doubt. But they feel very generic – and it’s mostly because they aren’t part of something bigger. Values must be very specifically tied to the organization’s Purpose and Vision. They should clearly help explain how the organization’s people will conduct themselves in order to achieve that bigger ideal. If you are trying to create sports innovations, you should probably value innovation as an organization and foster it in the work environment. If you epitomize a lifetime of achievement like Mercedes, you should value and celebrate achievement by your teams. Values disconnected from bigger objectives and ideals are empty words that actually can backfire. They become unmoored from the reality of your working environment and become fodder for cynicism among the team. They’re just nice ideas whose applicability no one really understands. They become the butt of jokes and meme material, ultimately undermining the development of a strong culture.  Like the Mission Statement, values need the context of purpose and vision to give them meaning and allow them to stick.

As you grapple with these big statements and ideas, keep in mind that it’s all about coherence. Everything has to work together. Creating Purpose, Vision, Mission and Values for the sake of creating them is a waste of time, an exercise in navel-gazing that will likely be ignored. But creating them to have real impact means taking the time to make their interdependence and relationship clear.

Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.

*If you have a body, you are an athlete.


Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.

*If you have a body, you are an athlete.


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