Illustration Credits: Sonal Singh

The vision-mission exercise

“We’re away on a mission-vision exercise,” said the client’s voice on the phone, speaking Hindi. ‘Vision’ sounded like what philologists call an echo word: a handy utterance meant to downplay the echoed word—mission, in this instance. Like we say ‘tax-vax’ or ‘college-shollege”. Mission-vission.

That was two decades ago. These days, Deep Design often deals with the corporate brand, and must uncover what makes it tick in its own special way. This inevitably begets close encounters with the company’s Vision and Mission statements, hanging lifelessly in the conference room (or above the photocopier in the utilities room). A polite attempt must be made to decode its vague and impenetrable corporate speak. It can then be safely forgotten, for assuredly no one from the company will remember or care.

And every now and then, a company might ask to have one of these things crafted. Deep Design takes arms against the problem: please find here, not advice on how to build one, but your columnist’s experience of what seems to go wrong when a group gets down to it. Why the result, so often, is empty bombast, without the capacity to inspire or guide; why it lies ignored and forlorn.

That’s an opportunity lost, because words matter. They can indeed provide an unwavering compass, a reminder that reinforces better thoughts and action, especially in times of uncertainty, and last a decade or more.

Some definitions follow. A Vision is an aspiration for the company’s future destination, a ‘some day…’ statement. A Mission sets the course for the journey, a “today, we…” promise. A company might also add Values—non-negotiable choices, irrespective of reward or disadvantage. Or a Purpose—why, beyond the obligation of profit, the company exists.

The words must be short, sharp and capable of triggering images and action. Yet, this is not a mere copy-crafting exercise. Words matter only if they flow from the depths of intentions, when they have consequences.

The words must be short, sharp and capable of triggering images and action. Yet, this is not a mere copy-crafting exercise. Words matter only if they flow from the depths of intentions, when they have consequences.

Without consequences, the statement ensures its irrelevance; it will make no one’s job harder, no one’s stride quicker, because participants have no skin in the game. The surest sign is an absence of fear, because an outcome is guaranteed, and failure is ruled out. The tacit, collective responsibility is to ensure sufficiently imprecise language.

Dilbert's mission statement generator
Dilbert’s mission statement generator

In this condition, expect the words to be borrowed, not owned, and at worst, from the vision statements of the most admired firm du jour.

While listing Values, quality, for example, is a perennial. Every business aims at it, but is the word a given? Qifaayat, a budget home goods brand, may define quality differently in both criteria and degree (neat, reliable, and just good enough). This brand need not enshrine quality as a Value. It might leverage its own way of doing business and express a Value like “domestic happiness for everyone”.

Getting to a value or a purpose demands questioning one’s business recursively: why does Qifaayat care about affordability, and in turn, what does affordability enable? Introspection is necessary to select an idea from a bunch of facts.

But group discussion dynamics favour competitive aspiration (I’m more ambitious than you). Introspection is suppressed, for it is best done alone and without the need to impress peers, or put up a brave face to consultants. Nothing wrong with ambition, but you reach there tomorrow from here, today. Unanchored ‘positivity’ is empty. Leadership is needed to facilitate honesty.

Even when a future position is rooted in reality, the talk may precede the walk. Spotting this needs maturity. Indeed claims, slightly in advance of capability, may be a tonic, and some businesses thrive that way. But mind the dose, heeding Henry Ford’s warning that one cannot build a reputation on what one is going to do.

Conversely, we see the failure to appreciate the company’s unique strengths altogether. Apart from pessimism, a false understanding of uniqueness may underlie this. Uniqueness is not absolute but governed by context (such as the competition and the category and the combination of special circumstances). Recognising it takes patience, and an appreciative mindset. Often an outside eye may do the job better.

Groupthink is also hospitable to consensus, a good thing if it is not compromise, or an attempt at completeness (include every attribute just to be safe). The latter two will result in a weakened vision. There’s often genuine cause: everyone’s participation is essential if change is to be subscribed to. But in that guise can come special pleading on behalf of a narrow interest, which poses a leadership challenge, especially when the pleader is an important person.

The statement must be precise and clear enough to be falsified, that is, possible to observe as being false. JFK’s “man on the moon by 1960” is falsifiable; “expanding frontiers of space” less so. Such specificity and measurability will be casualties in the face of compromise, the unwillingness to confront or appreciate today’s position, and the raging hormones of ambition uncoupled from reality.

The statement must be precise and clear enough to be falsified, that is, possible to observe as being false. 

All these are defects of process, mindset and the right conditions for discussion. But the most serious issues may be structural, stemming from the company’s leadership, and beyond the reach of the facilitator. The CEO must take honest personal counsel.

The first is a fear of fixity: the apprehension that clear statements reduce optionality and cramp the business’ freedom to operate. More serious yet is a lack of agreement, not on what the statement is, but what it does, its role in the company’s daily life. Will it be displayed (how, where?) Will we begin meetings with it, or quote it to resolve arguments? Will it influence our systems of reward, our allocation of money and people, our marketing?

An answer may be to avoid blue sky thinking. Instead, let the business run till the facts are in. Let the group form an appreciation of the company’s phases of success, and a theory of what it did right then. After reflection, define it and resolve to make the company even more like it already is, when at its best. This may be the best way for the vision and mission to be more than just a wordy decoration.

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First published in a slightly modified form ‘The Vision Mission Exercise’ in Business Standard, 16 June, in Deep Design, a fortnightly column by Itu Chaudhuri.

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