Missioning & Visioning

Introducing Bob de Wit


At long last, we have reached the final concept of our inaugural seven to discuss.

Last week, we dug into John Kay’s notion of obliquity. Although the premise had promise, its supporting evidence was simply too weak to ignore - an unfortunate common refrain among many supposedly novel ideas. Today, we are therefore going back to basics.

Missioning and visioning are staples of traditional strategy formulation, although they, as Bob de Wit notes in the excellent Strategy Synthesis, are often confused for one another and used interchangeably.

Where it all began is difficult to say. Marks & Spencer, it seems, had something which one might today consider a mission statement a hundred odd years ago; ‘The subversion of the class structure of 19th century England by making available to the working and lower-middle classes, upper-class quality at prices the working and lower-middle classes could well afford’. This, as any British reader probably already has concluded, is rather close (in fact, impressively so) to its modern version - ‘To make aspirational quality accessible to all’.

Either way, it is clear that Peter Drucker was telling companies to define their missions by the mid 1970s (though he did not necessarily invent the term). A decade later, the big consultancies had caught on and it was only a matter of time before MBA programs did too.

So, what are they? Well, in short, the corporate mission consists of the fundamental principles that mobilize and propel a firm in a set direction. The corporate vision, meanwhile, defines an idealized future state that the organization is seeking to achieve.

Both the mission and the vision thus, as can be seen above, contribute to the direction of the strategy. It is of course for this reason that they are relevant to the A (aspiration) in ABCDE.

de Wit argues that three core aspects must be addressed in order to enable the sought-after effect.

Firstly, one must define what types of fundamental principles make up the corporate mission. These can be, as per the image below,

  • the organizational beliefs (if an organization fails to share beliefs about things such as the strategy, execution and adaptation can become difficult),

  • the organizational purpose (what Peter Drucker would have called its concept of business, i.e., not necessarily a want to save the world),

  • the business definitions (either traditionally in terms of focus, something like Roger Martin’s WTP or the ABCDE boundaries, all of which should be created with the intention to help distinguish between opportunities and diversions), and

  • the organizational values (as we saw last week, best kept pragmatic and intended to contribute to an overall sense of corporate identity).

Second, one should distinguish between what in somewhat pretentious language might be called envisioning processes. The envisioned contextual environment is an estimate (remember, context is ever changing) of the wider context in which one intends to act (e.g., markets, verticals, pace layers etc.). The envisioned industry environment similarly provides an early prediction of relevant suppliers, buyers, incumbent rivals, substitutes, complementors and so forth.

In chronological terms, the industry environment follows the contextual environment. Rivals, for example, may change from one market to the next.

In combination with the overall ambition (the organization’s shared understanding of success), the envisioning processes can provide information about what a realistic future position might be; the strategic vision and any long-term objectives.

The exercise is far more than theoretical. A fact of business life often overlooked in column inch posturing is that what is considered near instant in one category might be considered an eternity in another. Understanding the context in which a strategy is intended to be executed is therefore absolutely crucial. Good starting points, from my experience, are the degrees to which the market is entrenched or exposed, key aspects of the business model (scale vs time to market, short vs long runs, small vs large clients and so on) and any horizons imposed by external actors such as financiers.

Thirdly, according to de Wit, one should consider what roles might be played by the vision and mission statements in the strategy formulation process. Are they intended to provide a) direction (of future decision-making), b) legitimization (signaling to stakeholders that the company is pursuing activities ‘in a proper way’) or c) employee motivation? Depending on the, shall we say, target audience, mission and vision statements can be defined in different ways.

Personally, I am a bit torn on this third point. It is evident that a missioning and visioning can provide direction. However, when it comes to legitimization and motivation, well, the jury is very much out.

As I have discussed elsewhere, it is indisputably true that one of the common challenges of modern business is managing the tension between shareholders and stakeholders (shareholders strictly speaking being stakeholders too notwithstanding). Balancing profitability and responsibility is a matter of increasing importance on most any corporate agenda. Unfortunately, as many of us are only too aware, this easily leads to ridiculous (and hubristic) mission statements about how the organization is larger than life - Starbuck’s ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time’ and WeWork’s mission to ‘elevate the world’s consciousness’ immediately come to mind. In turn, this leads to neither legitimization nor motivation, but ridicule.

Edward Rozycki’s critique of visioning and missioning in US education illustrates the problem:

Here is a mission statement from an affluent school district just outside Philadelphia: “Empower each student to succeed in life and contribute to society”. There is perhaps no more certain indicator of the depth to which our society has been secularized than in the mission statements of those who arrogate to themselves heretofore Divine attributes of Omnipotence and Omniscience. Imagine educators in a middle or high school knowing that they have empowered their students to succeed in life—or perhaps that is merely hyperbole for teaching the students to be literate and minimally mathematical. Are we, then, to imagine that educators are so ego-deficient that someone must routinely, grandiosely, recast their humble yet important achievements of basic schooling as feats of historical significance?

Another nearby community has its schools profess: “The mission of the X School District is to ensure that every student is inspired and prepared to be a passionate lifelong learner and a productive, invested participant in the local and global communities.” (Can one even say this aloud without hyperventilating?) Weeks of faculty time are spent cooking this mission down into supposedly operational goals. On the surface, the issue is this: how are teachers to bring the mission into their day-to-day pursuits? Instruction time is forgone as teachers meet to pursue this will-o’-the-wisp. In their committees they find out that the surface is only to be polished: hardly ever scratched. Insightful or possibly critical questions are deflected during the group-think process by the school’s resident lickspittle, who cajoles those assembled into “preserving a collegial atmosphere” and “keeping everyone on task”—an insinuation that probing inquiry is “out of place” or “not quite professional.”

Whatever scatterbrained confabulations the staff generates are taken as answers, solemnly recorded and duly acceptable to local, state, and regional accrediting agencies. As they say in the computer-programming world, GIGO—garbage in, garbage out.

Such activity wastes time, spirit, and intellect—ask any educator (in private)—because the mission statement is never subjected to careful scrutiny prior to attempts to “operationalize” it: “Our vision is yadda, yadda. Our mission, therefore, is blah, blah, blah. What does this mean for your classroom?” “For me it means glug, glug, glug!” “Excellent! We’ll definitely meet our accreditation requirements now.”

Although Rozycki (clearly) takes a significant degree of pleasure in providing the acerbic, he is not so far off the mark that he will be able to buy tax-free goods on the way back. Most of us who have a couple of grey hairs will be familiar with his examples, as demonstrated by this reply provided as I discussed Rozycki on Twitter:

Mission and vision statements often start their lives as rather pragmatic affairs. Yet as organizations grow larger, what one might call mission creep starts to kick in; merely looking to create products that customers would want becomes too humble an ambition the moment the company is no longer struggling to survive. Before you know it, big name consultancies are brought in, and instead of allowing the new vision to emerge organically, it is created in a number of expensive off-site strategy retreat workshops - and promptly introduced with disbelief-inducing fanfare, pomp and circumstance. The business no longer outgrows its visions; the visions start to outgrow the business. Controlling, or at least containing, the evolution of visions and missions can therefore be a key aspect of business strategy.

So what is the verdict? Well, for all the crap thrown in their general direction (including by yours truly), they occasionally do serve an undeniable purpose. For example, for company founders, visioning and missioning can create a point of reference. Over time, this point might obviously change, but with all the other things going on early in a company’s lifecycle, putting things in writing can undoubtedly help. Similarly, for investors, properly constructed vision and mission statements can sometimes act as shortcuts to crucial information such as stakeholders, technological sophistication or clarity of strategic thought.

The key is, as with anything to do with strategy, to attack visioning and missioning with pragmatic fervor. If the assumptions made are critically (and continuously) challenged, not only will the end result be better for it, but one might also discover alternative approaches and improved methods. Done well, as we saw with Marks & Spencer, they can direct the organization for centuries.

In order to have any chance of achieving it, mission and vision statements must be simple, accessible, relevant and measurable. Hopefully the provided illustrations above provide help to that end, but if not, at least remember two things:

  1. consultancy speak does not last beyond the boardroom (whether in space or time), and

  2. never assume that the act of writing anything down, in itself, changes anything for the better. The value (no pun intended) lies in what you do with it.

Next week, we will recap the seven strategic concepts that we have now covered and provide a summary analysis of what it all amounts to for the strategic aspiration. After that, we are going to move on to a number of common theories that did not make the cut, but may warrant highlighting precisely because of it.

Until then, have a lovely weekend.

Onwards and upwards,