I have, over the past dozen or so years, spent many hours reading the Mission, Purpose, Vision, and Values Statements of organizations I have encountered. It seems that somewhere along the line, as a community, we have gotten confused about what these statements are, what they offer, and how they can serve the organization over time. I have seen companies write mission statements as if they were writing marketing slogans. Others take their values, inscribe them in stone and place them in their lobby for all to see, never to be considered again. The values of Integrity, Communication, Respect, Excellence, were engraved in marble and stood in the lobby of Enron, perhaps the most glaring public example of the failure of a value statement to influence the behavior of people and of a company as a whole.

I figured that, as we begin the year, it is as good a time as any to have this conversation. What I will say here is not the only way to look at this. However, looking at the creation of these statements in this way, works. Using this model, an organization’s leadership can be clear about who they are, what they are setting out to accomplish, and how they will accomplish it.

So, lets start at the top.

Vision is what the world looks like if you fulfill the organization’s Mission. Vision is not something that you will do, nor is it how you will do it. Developing the vision of a company is a creative project, it requires imagining a future that does not already exist and committing to its realization. This is in the domain of Leadership.

Mission is the game that you will play, the ground you will take, what you will provide the world with, in the long term. Again, this is not what you will do, but rather what the doing of things will cause to occur. This is also in the domain of Leadership

Purpose is what you will do. It is the actions you will take, the work that the organization will do in fulfillment of the Mission. This is in the domain of Management.

Values are how you will do what you do, what principles you hold dear in the process; the foundational elements of how you will deal with people and business, internally and externally. Let me add that a statement of values will not have lasting impact without policies and practices that support those values. The statement itself has no power. This, too, is in the domain of Management.

In order to make the fulfillment of Vision predictable, an organization must have the other elements in place. Further, there must be policies and practices that support Purpose and Values. This is in the domain of management. An organization without these practices in place might “remember” their values, but they are unlikely to live up to them. They may know what they are trying to do, but straying from the path is more likely than staying on it.

I suggest that these elements of an organizational identity are valuable when, and only when, real policies are in place to support them. In and of themselves, they offer nothing. Many of our clients have worked through this process from the top down and finished by laying out the day-to-day practices that make fulfillment of their vision the natural result of a simple progression. From there they have only to stick with their policies, stay committed to their mission, and deal with the breakdowns as they show up.

Edited by Meg Buck

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