Visions, Missions and all that Jazz

A wise man once said ‘when you are born you are given a brush – you can paint heaven or you can paint hell, the choice is yours, so choose well my friend.’

Wiseman Photo

I often replay these words when I get asked to help leaders and their teams look into the future and ‘imagineer’ a vision and mission for their team, function or organisation. I know from my personal experience leading Sensei that the art of predicting the future is fraught with difficulty, but just because it is difficult does not mean we should not try and do it. As most of us live our lives at such a frantic pace it is rare for us to stop and ask what are we doing all this for? In this short article I will explore the role a well thought through vision and mission can have on helping us all keep in mind the real purpose of why we do what we do.

For many leaders the chance to look into the future comes along when we are required to create, or to review and revise our strategy. In large organisations this is an annual ritual that usually precedes the budgets and can unfortunately often be an energy sapping, ‘cut and paste’, template driven exercise that does nothing to enlighten the soul. However for some leaders, usually those fairly new in post, or those who own their organisations, it is a chance to ‘reboot’ themselves and their leadership teams and to lift their heads up from the here and now and focus beyond the current issues horizon. As such it can be an energising way to co-create a future worth working towards.

Cat in Alice and Wonderland - Copy

When crafting new strategies with leadership teams I remind them of Einstein’s oft quoted phrase shown in the picture at the start of this piece. The desire to drop down into detail and to rush to develop action plans can be overwhelming and it has to be resisted until a clear and compelling vision of the future can be discussed, honed and developed. As the Cat in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland so aptly said, and I paraphrase, ‘If you do not 

know where you are going then any road will take you there’  A clear and compelling picture of where ‘there’ is has to be the first step in any strategic journey.

It can be useful to remind ourselves who we create visions and missions for and what they want. In my view there are four key audiences for a vision and mission, they are:

  • Investors and stakeholders – who want to have confidence that the leadership have clarity of purpose and are creating a future they consider is worth investing in.
  • Customers and consumers – who demand differentiation and want to know why they should deal with you and not your competitors and want some confidence that you are building towards a future that is in tune with their own values and aspirations.
  • Employees and recruits – who want to do meaningful work and to understand why what they do is worth doing. They also want to have the confidence in you as leaders that you are steering the organisation to a destination worth their efforts.
  • Leaders and managers in your organisation – who need some guidance that the day-to-day decisions they are taking are correct in those important moments of truth; those moments when decisions have to be taken that matter.

In thinking about your vision and mission it is well worth keeping these diverse audiences in mind. A really good vision and mission will satisfy all four.

At this point it is worth pausing and clarifying some nomenclature. I have found the words used is the strategic arena can be subject to many different interpretations – you will be surprised how many different types of answer I get to the simple question ‘can you tell me what your strategy is?’. So let me be clear.

When I use the word ‘mission’ I am talking about the purpose of your organisation, why you exist, your overall aim and why this matters. For Sensei this is ‘to engage human performance to help leaders deliver strategic results’ and as the business owner I can talk for a long time about why this is important to me and to my clients. This is my Northern Star that guides all the work I do and helps me recognise a distraction when one is presented to me.

One of the better mission statements I have seen in recent years was crafted initially as an advertising campaign for Pedigree Pet Foods and came from the CEO, otherwise known as the ‘top dog’. It goes as follows:

Pedigree dogs

‘We’re for Dogs. Some people are for the whales, some are for the trees, we’re for dogs. The big ones; the little ones; the guardians; the comedians; the pure breeds; and the mutts. We’re for walks, runs and romps. Digging, scratching, sniffing and fetching. We’re for dog parks, dog doors and dog days. If there were an international holiday for dogs on which all dogs were universally recognised for the contribution to the quality of life on earth, we’d be for that too. Because we’re for dogs, and we have spent the last 60 years working to make them as happy as they have made us. Dogs rule.’

It’s a little bit long but nonetheless it’s pretty neat!

When I use the word ‘vision’ in the context of strategy I mean a picture of a destination worth arriving at, an ambition that is beyond our immediate horizon and one that is compelling and desirable to reach. It is important that this destination talks as much to the heart as it does the head, as I have come across far too many visions that are simply dull and boring or far too ambitious so they become de-motivating. As a top tip anything that promises to make others rich and successful while you work hard is unlikely to inspire internally there has to be something in it for everyone. Your vision should be granular enough to answer the questions where are we heading and how will we know when we have arrived?

In recent years I have encouraged leadership teams to use sketches and pictures captured on a Strategic Journey canvas to represent the vision of their organisation. I have found this is as a powerful way to engage people in creating a vision of the future. This process is great for generating involvement, emotional buy-in and behavioural alignment.

Many studies have shown that allowing people to draw and doodle enhances comprehension and getting people to co-create a composite drawing is proving to be a great way to engage the imagination and have meaningful conversations that transcend words. Click here for a great TED talk on this topic. The resulting strategic Journey storyboard provides some great collateral that can be used to cascade the story throughout the organisation. I find leaders talking to the strategic journey storyboard are far more engaging than leaders presenting Power Point slides. The canvas seems to enable them to tell a story that others can relate and contribute to and of course is visible throughout the talk rather than flashing past in a click. In this way the vision becomes a living document, one that can evolve with time and can be kept visible throughout the organisation.

We all yearn to be doing meaningful work and to understand, and if we are lucky get the chance to co-create, our Mission and Vision can be a real motivator for our day-to-day activity. To do this well we all need to stop the world for a while and consider where we are headed. Remember when you were a child and were asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ well this is the same question under a different guise and it needs some careful reflective thought to answer it well.

As the communication noise levels rise in all workplaces creating an oasis of calm to collectively consider some of the hardest questions we face in business is needed now more than ever.

Malcolm Follos

August 2014