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Mission and vision statements: how to write them

Francisco Homem de Mello

vision

We at Qulture.Rocks read many Silicon Valley pundits talking about mission and vision statements and are amazed by how little clarity and confusion there is around what these terms really mean, why they exist, and how companies can leverage them the most. Therefore, we’re going to talk a bit about how to write your company’s mission and vision statements.

How pundits define mission and vision

Pundits (a general term for whoever tries to define these terms) rarely agree on what a great mission and vision statement really mean.

To start, let’s look at one of the most referred to articles on the subject: Jim Collins’ Building Your Company’s Vision, which went on to become the core idea behind Good to Great, Collins’ business best-seller.

In the first line of the article, which was published in the Harvard Business Review, Collins and his co-author, Jerry Porras, write “Companies that enjoy enduring success have a core purpose and core values that remain fixed while their strategies and practices endlessly adapt to a changing world.” Reading that is already very confusing. In an article about vision, the author have a first line talking about core purpose and core values.

They then try to clarify it a bit, and go on to say “[vision] has two principal parts: core ideology and envisioned future.”

Let’s look a bit more.

By Googling “how to build company vision,” we stumble upon an article from Openview Venture partners (by portfolio CEO Firas Raouf) that defines mission as “What a company is striving to be in the long term” and vision as “How it can get there? What things need to be executed to accomplish the mission?”

How big companies use mission and vision

Companies’ websites don’t really help us better understand what these concepts – mission and vision – mean.

Google’s mission statement, found on its website, is “… to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” There’s no mention of there being a vision. If we unpack it, there’s a first part that talks about how Google makes an impact on the world (organizing the world’s information and making it easier to retrieve). Then, a part that talks about how Google wants the world to look like (a world where information is organized and universally accessible and useful).

On the other hand, Amazon’s mission statement is “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices.” Amazon’s mission concentrates on what the company wants to become (earth’s most customer-centric company). And it goes on to explain in more details how that’ll be true (where customers can find a lot of stuff cheaply).

Seems like these two giants don’t define their vision statements. They only talk about missions. Now, if we read their missions, it’s very hard to abstract a consistent pattern on what a mission should look like.

In the “old economy”

If we look at the “old economy” for reference, we get even more confused. Koch Industries, for example, defines its vision as: “Koch Industries is a trading, investment and operating company that aggressively identifies and acquires companies in which it can leverage our strengths to generate superior earnings or market value.” Their mission is “Koch Industries seeks to maximize the present value of future profits. Doing so provides security and opportunity for stockholders and productive employees, while also benefiting customers and society…”

Now, unpacking Koch’s mission and vision is a trip. Their mission basically describes what business the company is in (buying out other companies for cheap). Their vision, on the other hand, describes what benefit the company wants to bring to its stakeholders (security and opportunity for stockholders and employees, and less explicit benefits to customers and society).

Our definition

If your feeling more confused than when you started reading this article, that’s exactly how we felt when we tried to understand what great mission and vision statements looked like to articulate our own statements at Qulture.Rocks. But we’re here to help you!

After this long journey, that included countless other references, we agreed upon the following definition:

  • The mission is the company’s purpose. It’s why it exists. A great helper is to think “how our company would negatively impact the world if it ceased to exist”. At Qulture.Rocks, for example, our mission is to “help organizations build cultures that rock”
  • The vision is how the world will look like if the company fulfills its purpose. At Qulture.Rocks, our vision is “a world where everybody can work at a culture that rocks”

As you can see, mission and vision statements are like two sides of the same coin. If the company fulfills its mission, the world will look like its vision. If it reaches its vision, it will have fulfilled its vision. So if they’re well written, they can sound cacophonic.

Company-centric x customer-centric

Using broad strokes, the company’s mission can be company-centric or customer-centric. Google’s mission (or the part of it that looks like a mission by our definition) is customer-centric. If a customer reads it, she relates immediately t how the company impacts her life. Koch’s mission is company-centric. It talks about basically how the company makes money in very practical terms.

We believe missions should be as customer-centric as possible, and abstract in nature. At Qulture.Rocks, for example, our mission is to help companies build cultures that rock. We’re not talking about anything else than the impact we were built to have on the world.

Also, another good guideline is not to mention your line of business in your mission and vision statements. They should be more about the world, and less about the how of your company’s impact. The how is more about strategy and tactics: how the company chooses, today, to bring that impact to the world. But that can change if it ceases to become the most efficient way to do it.

For example, we don’t cite software or technology on our mission statement. That’s because we’re about cultures that rock, and not about software. Software is how we chose to pursue our mission, but it can change to another thing (content, consulting, wearables) if we think that’d cause more impact.

Back to Google and Amazon

Now that we’ve – hopefully – agreed on a definition of a mission and vision statement, let’s go back to Amazon’s and Google’s mission statements and see how they pass our test.

Again, Google’s mission statement is … to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It’s kind of a blend between a mission and a vision. The first part looks like a mission: Google exists to organize the world’s information and make it easy to access. But it gradually blends into a vision, because it lends to us a vivid description of what the world will look like if they’re successful: a world where all information is easy to access and useful. We’d give it a 7.

Amazon, on the other hand, has a worse mission statement. As we saw earlier, it reads “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices.” That looks much more like a vision statement to us, and quite a company-centric one, for that matter. It describes a future, but in terms of what the company will look like in the future, and not what the world will look like in the future.

Recap

By now, I hope you have a better grasp at what good mission and vision statements look like. As we’ve seen,

  • Mission is the company’s purpose. It’s why it exists. A great helper is to think “how our company would negatively impact the world if it ceased to exist”
  • Vision is how the world will look like if the company fulfills its purpose

Your company doesn’t need to talk about a mission and a vision. As we’ve also seen, when they’re well written, they both kind of convey the same message to readers. Google’s, for example, is a mission statement with elements of a vision statement and that’s fine. Just make sure people can understand, in terms that are relevant to them, why your company exists and/or how the world will look like if it fulfills that purpose.