What’s the difference between a company’s mission and its purpose? Between its strategy and its vision? Where do values fit in? If you’ve ever wondered how best to sum up your business in a few words but not end up with a lifeless plaque on a wall, you’ve probably wrestled with these mission elements. And if you tried to read up to decide what to do, but ended up even more confused than when you started, you are not alone.
Even trusted sources define mission, values, purpose, vision, and strategy differently. Even after you’ve decided a well-crafted mission statement is a good idea for your business, inconsistent perspectives make it hard to know how to get to a good one and what to include.
Here’s the framework we use to organize thinking about mission. Because the framework focuses on why and how, it helps leadership teams powerfully convey values, purpose, vision, and strategy to the people they hope will find meaning and motivation to bring life to the words.
First, the least helpful thing an organization can do is get caught up in semantic arguments about the best definition for a mission statement. Mission is a widely used and much confused concept. Quick history: ‘mission’ comes from the Latin root ‘send.’ In the 1500s, Jesuits assigned missionaries to spread the word of Catholic Christianity. Later the military adopted ‘mission’ to refer to objectives that personnel were sent to perform. Then Peter Drucker advocated for the value of using ‘mission statements’ in business strategy3. The wisdom of collectives in organizations: An update of the teamwork competencies. In Team effectiveness in complex organizations: Cross-disciplinary perspectives and approaches (pp. 39–79). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. ") The concept caught on, but the definition became a point for debate, clouding the whole intent which is to provide action-driving clarity.
Not surprisingly given this history, one of the most airtight definitions of mission we’ve seen comes from the Department of Defense. The DOD says mission is “The task, together with the purpose, that clearly indicates the action to be taken and the reason therefore4. So according to the DOD, a formal mission includes ‘what you do’ and ‘why you do it.’
Turning that definition back on the idea of capturing mission in a few words is useful. In leading an organization, ‘what do you do?’ You seek to unite people in a common purpose. ‘Why do you do it?’ Because you can then drive organized collective actions that produce value and make the organization thrive. We believe any organization can build a stated mission to serve that purpose. To do so, you need a few fundamental elements that each contribute something unique to impact people, teams, and the organization as a whole.
Mission = Values + Purpose + Vision + Strategy
Values, purpose, vision, and strategy can all unify people toward common goals. Yet, each carries impact in a unique way. Values, purpose, vision, and strategy each answer different questions for your people. We find it helpful to line up those questions in a ‘Why-erarchy.’
Values and purpose make up your identity and answer more abstract ‘why?’ questions. That’s why they sit higher in the ‘Why-erarchy.’ Vision and strategy outline your planned direction and answer more concrete ‘what?’ questions. In contrast, identity is more fundamental and enduring, while direction is more specific and adaptable over time.
Levels of the ‘Why-erarchy’ connect. Considering how to pursue a value helps identify shorter-term objectives and actionable steps that focus energy. Likewise, taking a strategic objective and repeatedly asking ‘why?’ clarifies purpose and values to remind people why certain behaviors or objectives are desirable.
Others have offered similar frameworks. In his “golden circle” model, Simon Sinek placed why questions at the core for an organization, leading next to how, then to what in an outer ring. Sinek has argued that ‘why?’ questions are most important and deserve the most careful attention5. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras have also distinguished between a company’s core ideology (values + purpose) and its envisioned future (vision)2.
Placing values, purpose, vision, and strategy in a ‘Why-erarchy’ is useful because it emphasizes the distinct yet connected questions that unify teams and organizations.
Remember Mad Libs, with those crazy fill-in-the-blanks stories? Imagine your team members each having a page to complete about your company’s mission. Imagine that the page contains starters for values, purpose, vision, and strategy. Now imagine that the details are blanks people fill in with the first idea that comes to mind. Then imagine that the story on that page drives their day-to-day actions and decisions.
Do you need to explicitly state values, purpose, vision, and strategy to guide your organization? Not always. But when clearly stated, values, purpose, vision, and strategy all reduce problems that come with disorganized, directionless or self-directed (mad-lib) behavior. Because of their differing focus, values, purpose, vision, and strategy reduce different problems.
Example: Consider the ‘Why-erarchy’ that expresses your curiosity about mission. You’re reading a blog post – what is your mission? Ask yourself about identity – What core values make you feel mission matters? What purpose do you hope to achieve with a strong mission? Ask yourself about direction – What is your vision for defining a mission in your team or organization? What is your strategy to align people in collective pursuit of mission? Now, as you consider the fill-in-the-blank provoked by these questions, is reading about mission a directionless activity for you, or one that will connect to pursuit of specific actions and decisions?
Each question can provide an important answer that builds meaning and energy by replacing mad-lib answers with greater clarity and intent. Clarity and intent are especially important when we step beyond decisions and actions as individuals into a team or organization.
It's not a competition. Rather, at different times, in different situations, each element can rise up to be the most relevant for that moment. Over time, across diverse situations, values, purpose, vision, and strategy will have their greatest impact when used in combination.
Step 1: Think of a specific action that happens in your organization. Step 2: Ask “why?” or “why is that desirable?” Step 3: With each new answer, continue asking “why?”
Eventually you will not be able to answer “why?” anymore. At that point, you have discovered a value: an unquestionable good that is desirable for its own sake. Values are core principles that cannot be justified any further. That’s why values sit at the top of the ‘why-erarchy.’
When people talk about company values, we almost always mean internal values. However, it can be useful to distinguish between external values and internal values:
When you emphasize and articulate external values or internal values, you are filling in the blanks of what ultimately matters most, and so:
Example: Imagine fictitious Acme Life Insurance:
External Value: Security
Internal Values supporting Security as a Customer Experience:
- Compassion – We empathize with our customers’ worries.
- Respect – Every customer has valid concerns and fears.
- Transparency – We explain our policies in the clearest way possible.
Centering people on “security” as a core value for life insurance customers keeps the focus on what ultimately matters. Detailing Acme’s supporting internal values explains how the company interprets the security needs of its customers and how Acme employees discuss and act on this need in every role from product development to customer sales and care to fielding claims.
Purpose is the reason why an organization exists. Purpose describes why the work of your business matters in the world. If you tell someone what service or product your company offers, your purpose answers the questions, “So what? Who cares? Why is that work meaningful?”
Purpose is timeless. Regardless of your company’s success, your stated purpose should be so significant that there will always be more work to do. It is possible to abandon or change your organization’s purpose, but not without impacting every part of the business going forward.
In the ‘why-erarchy,’ purpose is just below values. Purpose answers how your organization’s output improves someone or something; core values answer why your purpose matters. Whereas core values point people to your fundamentally important beliefs, your organization’s purpose spotlights the meaningful results of your work. Most organizational activity should support accomplishing your purpose.
Example: Acme’s purpose: “To protect the well-being of those in mourning.”
Notice how Acme’s stated purpose relates to security, Acme’s external value. Also note how the purpose statement introduces an active verb, “protect,” that Acme team members can point toward. Finally, note how the Acme purpose statement begins to define an important group of people to serve, “those in mourning.” In this example, the focus is on the value of Acme’s work during the most vulnerable moment rather than on the purchase moment for life insurance customers.
Any core value can translate into a compelling purpose statement that can guide an organization to take action to serve an aspiration or need that exists in the world. For example, think about open-mindedness as a core value; an organization purpose could be “to expose people to new ideas.”
Filling in a meaningful purpose for people creates active energy and resilience in the face of challenges, setbacks, and failure. Acme team members who set out each day to “protect the well-being of those in mourning” will look for opportunities to accomplish that important purpose and will be driven to overcome or remove barriers. Team members who set out each day to “expose people to new ideas” will be looking out for possible ideas and ways to communicate them and will self-correct when encountering feedback that ideas are not new to certain customer segments.
Vision is the “mental image of a possible and desirable future state of the organization”1. Vision paints where the organization wants to go. While purpose is active, vision focuses on the surroundings.
A vision can be wildly ambitious or even utopian. The envisioned future is imaginable, though, and progress toward the vision is measurable. Since a vision is more concrete than a purpose, it can be quite possible to achieve the envisioned future or come so close to it that the vision loses its motivational power and needs to be updated. Some argue that a 5-10 year vision is ideal so that it is challenging but also within reach.
Vision claims an important middle ground in the ‘why-erarchy.’ Vision boils the pursuit of values and purpose down to a clearer picture of how the world looks as a result. Yet vision still answers why for strategy. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s bold vision is “A world free of MS.” Filling in the vision blank leaves no ambiguity about what it will look like for this organization to succeed. Traversing through the ‘why-erarchy,’ we can still ask “why?” to reveal a higher purpose (e.g., to improve nervous system health in the people who need it most) and an external value (e.g., well-being).
Imagine when MS is mostly treatable or even wiped out entirely. Would an organization that contributed so successfully to its cure just close up shop? Maybe, and in that case, their vision and purpose were identical. Their main reason for being was the achievement of that end state. More likely though, the organization would continue to leverage their core competencies and established infrastructure toward a related but distinct problem. Their purpose and external value would unite the old and new projects under common meaning.
Example: Acme’s Vision: “Nobody worries about funeral costs ever.”
A strategy statement is forward-facing and answers two questions about direction: (1) what do you offer?, and (2) how are you unique?
Imagine being asked for your business strategy. What would you say? Occupying the lowest level of our ‘why-erarchy,” your strategy statement fills in the blanks about how you’re acting on your values and purpose to accomplish your vision. Strategy says what your organization’s main output is and creates concrete expectations about your capabilities and distinctiveness.
A strategy statement should distinguish you from similar others. What is your unique value to your customers? What is special about what you offer? In your decisions and interactions, what immediate goal represents your organization’s best idea of how to reflect your values and purpose and achieve your vision? As an element of your mission, your strategy statement is a quick summary of your next steps to reach and respond to people and groups who want or need what you offer.
Example: Acme’s Strategy Statement: “We offer low-cost, straightforward life insurance policies through our revolutionary online network of experienced brokers.”
With this strategy clearly laid out, Acme team members know specific approaches right now that they can lead and support. With the higher-level identity components of values and purpose from the ‘why-erarchy,’ and a clear vision to point toward directionally, it is the strategy component of mission that has tremendous power to reduce confusion about exactly how the team is moving forward together, exactly what performance excellence is required, and where innovative ideas are most needed.
An organization doesn’t need all of these statements—or any of them—to thrive. However, every organization does need collective efforts of individuals and teams that produce value in its markets. The reflection and consensus required to formulate mission, values, purpose, vision, and strategy into clear and memorable statements can greatly improve coordination and culture within your organization, and provide a concise leadership tool that can permeate all of your business and people practices.
Stating your identity and direction allows customers and employees to connect with your organization on a deeper level. Experiencing that identity and direction in day-to-day interactions then creates resonance that draws people beyond a short-term transaction assessed for obvious pay-off, into core beliefs that form a lasting relationship. Some people might not like what you say, and that’s okay. The ones who do are with you for the long haul, as genuinely committed team members, business affiliates, or customers. Publishing and actually living a mission that encompasses values, purpose, vision, and strategy helps people establish a meaningful connection energized toward accomplishing important work that matters.