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© 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.
Excerpt from www.NDMA.COM, © 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.

Provocative Essay: Mission-Vision-Values

there's a better way to describe what the organization is about, where it's going, and how it will behave

by N. Dean Meyer

It's taken at face value that mission-vision-values statements are worth doing. But talk to the rank-and-file and you'll find that this artful prose and the beautiful posters that carry it have little impact on organizational performance.


They may even have engendered a degree of cynicism. "Is that all our leaders did in that retreat? They're so out of touch. I bet they were playing golf rather than solving our problems."

Why do mission-vision-values statements typically fail to do much good? And what does it take to do them right?


The typical mission statement: "To be a world-class supplier of IT products and services that help our clients make gobs of money."

What kind of reactions from staff might leaders be hoping for? "Gee, boss, I didn't know that. I guess I'll stop writing HR policies and get back to systems programming."

In fact, the typical mission statement does little more than state the obvious: We're in the IT business. And that alone isn't going to motivate anybody or tell them anything new.

The problem with typical mission statements is that they define the business of the entire organization. Staff don't relate to them because they're too ethereal, vague, and grandiose.

(The one case where organization-level mission statements are worthwhile is to clarify the five roles of corporate IT vis-a-vis decentralized IT groups.)

Effective mission statements define the business of each small group within the organization. They give people a clear understanding of their own purpose.

For example, one group may sell applications to clients. Another may sell logical data modelling to applications developers. Still another group may sell infrastructure-based services (like applications hosting) to clients, while a support group sells infrastructure engineering services (like upgrades and tuning) to the internal service operators.

When missions are defined group by group, they focus staff on their respective customers (be they clients or internal) and their products. They build customer focus, entrepreneurship, empowerment, a sense of identity with end results, and pride in the value of one's work.

They also enhance teamwork by defining internal customer-supplier relationships.

Group-level mission statements (I call them "domains") have some side benefits as well. They flush out gaps and overlaps, and help rationalize the structure.

Here's the problem: Defining group-level domains is hard work.

First, leaders have to learn a common language for talking about domains -- a framework of the various lines of business within organizations.

Then, they apply that clear language to their organization chart, deconstructing it into the lines of business under each manager. In this process, they learn to think about what people sell (whether or not money changes hands) rather than what they do.

Next, they craft a domain (mission) for each of those lines of business under each manager. At this step, a common format and set of guidelines not only help managers write them, but ensures consistency which later makes it easy to put them side by side and identify the gaps and overlaps.

The result is not a beautifully worded sentence or two. It's a database of all the specific lines of business throughout the organization.

Finally, they review one another's domains and look for gaps and overlaps. These insights represent opportunities to adjust boundaries by refining the domain statements, or perhaps motivation for some structural changes.

This is a process, not a workshop. And the more levels of management that are engaged in it, the more powerful the impact.


The typical vision statement: "To be recognized as a leader in quality and value and as a critical component of corporate strategy, to be loved by our clients and staff, and to be showered in accolades and bonus checks."

The expected reaction: "Gee, boss, I'd love to see you get that recognition.... I think I'll put in a few extra hours today."

Or perhaps: "Now that I know there's a chance that someday we might get all those rewards, I feel my work is more worthwhile."

The reality is that there's little in it for staff (you know, "WIIFM"), and typical vision statements induce smirks rather than inspiration. Furthermore, they say next to nothing about what people should do differently today, so they have little impact on performance.

Why? Because they talk about the rewards we want, not what we'll do to get them.

An effective vision statement describes a clear picture of the organization that leaders want to build. It serves as a guideline for organizational changes, such that each change is designed to add up to that end-point.

It explains to staff where we're going, and why near-term changes (the steps along the way) are worthwhile. And it motivates change by saying, "The bar is raised. Maybe we were okay by past standards; but compared to this vision, we must change."

To present a clear picture of where we're going, an effective vision is phrased as, "If we're to be world-class, this organization is expected to [blank]." And the blank is described in detail.

When facilitating the development of leadership visions, we use five themes:

  • Partnership Challenges: What clients (and internal customers) expect of us related to their business and their relationship with the organization.

  • Resource Management Challenges: How our resources (money, time, etc.) are created, utilized, and tracked.

  • Product Design Challenges: What we do to design, build, and deliver products which customers will then own.

  • Operational Services Challenges: How we provide ongoing services, both to clients and internally.

  • People Management Challenges: The way the organization treats its staff.

Within each of these themes, leaders craft precise statements of what's expected of the organization.

The overriding vision is of a competitive business within a business. This paradigm provides the framework within which specific expectations are crafted.

Again, this is not a single pretty paragraph. It's a detailed set of expectations that precisely define the organization of the future.

And again, this takes work. Developing a vision induces meaningful debates within the leadership team about where we're going.

For example, are we really going to be customer focused, or do we know what's best for the company and we're here to control clients? How about a set of vision statements that reads:

  • In response to customers' requests, proactively propose a range of viable alternatives (as in Chevrolet, Cadillac, or Rolls-Royce) that represent meaningful choices in cost and functionality.

  • Fully inform customers of everything it knows relevant to their business decisions.

  • Help customers make wise purchase decisions, i.e., choose from among the alternatives we offered based on their values/preferences, not ours.

  • Accept customers' decisions without ever undermining them or becoming a hurdle or adversary.

[These examples are excerpted from the actual database of visionary organizational expectations accumulated from thousands of leaders in dozens of organizations over the last 15 years.]

The hard work pays off. Developing a clear vision is great teambuilding, since leaders come to consensus on how the organization should work. A detailed vision guides every organizational change toward a common end point. And it's motivational to staff since they finally understand where their leaders are taking them and why change is needed.


The typical values statement: "Ethics, Trust, Customer Focus, Teamwork, Initiative, Motherhood."

Nice words. The expected reaction is something like, "Okay, now that you mention it, I'll stop lying, making commitments I can't keep, back-stabbing my colleagues, and abusing clients."

But the truth is, these glowing words have only a marginal impact on day-to-day behaviors. In some cases, they even have the wrong impact; for example, "I'm being ethical and looking out for the best interests of the company; therefore, I won't give you the system you're asking for because I'm the one who knows what's best for you."

Most parents know you're supposed to "criticize the behavior, not the child." Learning theory is quite clear on the importance of teaching behaviors, not values.

It's the same in organizations. To be effective, values have to be translated into clear operating principles.

For example, instead of saying "we value trust," tell people what to do to build others' trust, like, "We never make a commitment we can't keep, and we keep every commitment."

Essentially, this defines an organization's culture in a way that has immediate impact. Those who preach values-based leadership are the ones who will tell you it takes a generation to change culture. In fact, we've seen dramatic impacts on culture in less than a year with the behavioral approach.

Work on values isn't necessarily wasted. Each value can be considered a "theme," within which leaders craft actionable principles of behavior. For examples of behavioral principles within the 13 themes we use to facilitate cultural change, take a look at some examples from the database we've accumulated working with a broad variety of leadership teams over the years.

Then comes the challenge: roll-out. Leaders teach staff the expected behaviors, talk about how the principles apply to their daily work, listen to staff's feedback, and measure and reinforce compliance.

Again, real leadership is not a quick workshop resulting in some laudable words. It's a process and a level of detail that impacts staff's daily work.

The Bottom Line

I can see it now.... The blog following this column will be a mixture of CIOs saying "we wrote a paragraph and it was wonderful" and consultants saying "we facilitate mission-vision-values statements and they're wonderful."

Perhaps I've been overly harsh to make a point. No doubt, they do some good. But the fact is, in leadership like in everything else in life, you get what you pay for.

A leadership retreat that comprises two days of wordsmithing (and golf) resulting in a one-page statement of mission-vision-values isn't going to change much in a large organization.

Mission, vision, values (ie, culture) -- each is worth doing only if it's done right. To have any real impact, leaders need to: 1) study frameworks, principles, and guidelines that will help them do a good job; 2) adopt a well-defined process; 3) put in the "sweat equity" it takes to develop a meaningful level of detail; and 4) invest in effective communications of the results with staff.

And mission-vision-values is not one thing. Each is a different process with a different intent. They don't all have to be done at once. Before you start, think past the buzz-words and understand what you're trying to accomplish. Plan the right sequence of leadership initiatives. And whatever you choose to do, do it well.


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