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Tell me again—what’s the difference between Vision, Mission and Strategy?

by Andy Scantland, Principal, Upside Partners It’s a question I hear again and again: “how do I keep it straight between my mission statement and my vision statement and my strategy?”  Leaders often are asking as they approach a planning period or just prior to the ‘management retreat’. The request is really valid: executives want to create clarity for their teams and want to start at the top with a review of the organization’s purpose.  According to James Kouzes and Barry Posner of Harvard, research tells us that only 3% of the typical business leader’s time is spent envisioning and enlisting. Since the company’s vision isn’t visited frequently, it’s tough to remember how the terms differ and how they’re applied.  A good boss wants to be sure she is crafting the right tool for the right purpose. Further, some want to know how critical having a Vision or Mission statement really is. Let’s start with definitions. An organization’s Vision is the Aspiration, the Why, the North Star, how you want the world to be different. An organization’s ideal future, a future which may never be achieved but is continuously sought. The Mission of an organization is the Purpose, the What, how this organization will operate on a broad and long lasting scale in order to make this world a different place. The Mission answers four questions about an organization’s existence:

  • WHAT we do;
  • WHAT value does we bring?
  • WHOM do we do it for; and
  • HOW we do what we do.

Many ask, then, what’s the difference between Mission and Strategy?  Strategy is the How, the Roadmap. The Strategy explains how resources should be allocated to accomplish the mission. The Strategy is more concrete, more specific and typically covers no more than a five year timeframe (and often in the one to three year range). Below is a table comparing Vision, Mission and Strategy side-by-side:

Vision Mission Strategy
Also known as… Our Aspiration / The Why / The North Star Our Purpose / The What Our Roadmap / The How
Definition The optimal desired future state; a statement of where the company is headed and what values are guiding that journey; an inspiring portrait of what it will look and feel like to pursue and achieve the organization’s mission and goals. A statement of how we will accomplish our vision; what and how the organization wants to accomplish. How resources should be allocated to accomplish the mission.
Attributes Shapes our understanding of why the organization exists and what role it plays in the world. • Focus is on an ideal;  a future which may never be achieved but always sought • Defines where you see the organization some years, maybe decades, from now. • Inspires the team to give its best. Answers four questions about why an organization exists : WHAT it does; WHAT value does it bring? WHOM do we do it for; and HOW it does what it does. • Broad goals for which the organization is formed. Prime function is internal; • Defines the key measure(s) of the organization’s success; • Defines the market(s) to be served. • Prime audience is the leadership, team and stockholders. • Concrete, goal-oriented language Individuals can see how their contribution supports the strategy. • Short- and long-term goals and should explain how those goals will be achieved• The guardrails that define prioritization, resource allocation and decision-making • Specifically, who we serve and how we will reach them. • Creating the Strategy typically follows the delineation of Vision and/or Mission.

Examples are often helpful here. Caremark is a good example of distinguishing between Vision and Mission:

Caremark’s Vision: We strive to improve the quality of human life. Caremark’s Mission: We provide expert care and innovative solutions in pharmacy and healthcare that are effective and easy for our customers.

 Steve Jobs noted that Apple’s vision has nothing to do with boxes or bytes.  In this video, Jobs explains that Apple’s Vision is to help people with passion to change the world for the better; note Jobs’ Vision for Apple is not around computers or graphics or improved user interfaces. It’s around the value delivered to the world. Ikea provides another good example.  They use slightly different language but the content works well in this framework:

Ikea’s Vision: To create a better everyday life for the many people. (Yes, the wording is awkward for our American ears but you get the point.) Ikea’s Mission: The business idea: we shall offer a wide range of well-designed home furnishings at prices so low that as many people as possible are able to afford them.  The HR idea: to give down-to-earth, straightforward people the opportunity to grow both as individuals and in their professional roles so that together we are strongly committed to creating a better everyday life for ourselves and for our customers.

Do I need a Vision or a Mission statement? Many organizations succeed without one or both.  I doubt you could find a correlation between financial results and the existence of a mission statement.  However, good reason exists to spend time thinking about this. First, providing a vision is a big expectation of Leadership.  When Harvard’s Kouzes and Posner surveyed many thousands of people and asked “What do you look for and admire in a leader (defined as someone whose direction you would willingly follow)?”, 72% said the leader should be forward looking.  Only honesty was a higher rated trait for leaders. Next, Vision and Mission provide essential clarity.  People doing the work need to understand the basis for how major decisions are made and the values that support those decisions.  By developing and communicating Vision and Mission, people understand how their contribution fits into the overall organization’s performance. According to Gallup, the highly-regarded research organization which has studied thousands or organizations and teams, understanding how your individual contribution fits into the organization is a core driver of employee engagement and performance. Further, team members and customers can align and evangelize to your values much more easily when they can point to a well-communicated vision. People can talk about it much more easily and enthusiastically when they understand and believe in it to their core. Finally, Vision and Mission grease the skids of decision making. Executives and middle managers are called upon to make resource allocation decisions on a daily basis: how to invest capital, who to hire, which strategy to pursue.  When Leadership has established a clear aspiration and purpose for the organization, those decisions are based on the overarching values for the organization and create consistency of purpose.  Managers can rely on a set of guardrails on which to frame discussions, make thoughtful recommendations and deliver investment decisions. Is publishing a Mission or Vision statement the special sauce for improving performance of your organization?  Probably not, but it can certainly contribute to building better, more enthusiastic and driven teams.


Andy Scantland is a principal at Upside Partners, which provides leadership development and executive coaching for growing businesses. Andy can be reached at ascantland@upside-partners.com. © 2015 Upside Partners