What’s the difference between an organization’s mission and its purpose? Between its strategy and its vision? Where do values fit in?
A well-crafted mission statement [drives purpose], but inconsistent perspectives make it hard to know how to get to a good one and what to include. Even trusted sources define mission, values, purpose, vision, and strategy differently–so how do you best sum up your organization in a few words and avoid a lifeless plaque on the wall?
Here’s the framework Coetic uses to organize thinking about mission. Mission is a widely used and much-confused concept. By focusing on Why and How, we’ve found that this framework helps leadership teams powerfully convey [values], purpose, vision, and strategy so that people find meaning and motivation to bring life to the words.
First, before stating a mission, we encourage teams to clarify together what a mission is. This important foundation helps prevent confusion and ongoing semantic arguments about a mission statement's best definition.
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 strategy[3~]. 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 intent of a strong mission is to provide action-driving clarity.
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 therefore. So according to the DOD, a formal mission includes ‘what you do’ and ‘why you do it.’
Turning that definition back toward the leadership work of capturing mission in a few words is useful. In leading an organization, ‘what do you do?’ You seek to unite people toward a common purpose. ‘Why do you do it?’ Because you can then drive organized collective actions that produce value and build a thriving organization.
With a shared understanding of what a mission is (a statement of what you do and why you do it) and what it’s meant to drive (unified purposeful action), a team can build a stated mission that activates people to accomplish meaningful work together.
Second, we guide teams to build a mission that contains fundamental elements that each contribute something unique to energize people, teams, and the organization as a whole. We call this the ‘Why-erarchy.’
Mission = Values + Purpose + Vision + Strategy
Values, purpose, vision, and strategy all help to unify people toward shared goals—with each element contributing in a unique way. Values, purpose, vision, and strategy each answer different questions. We find it helpful to line up those questions in a ‘Why-erarchy.’
Values and purpose create identity and answer the most abstract ‘why?’ questions. Thus, values and purpose sit higher in the ‘Why-erarchy.’ Vision and strategy outline planned direction and answer more concrete ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ questions. The identity an organization claims as its purpose and values is more fundamental and enduring, while the direction leaders set through vision and strategy is more specific and adaptable over time.
Levels of the ‘Why-erarchy’ connect by asking ‘How?’ to move from abstract to concrete and by asking ‘Why?’ to move from action to purpose. 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 goals are desirable.
Others have offered similar frameworks. In his “golden circle” model, Simon Sinek placed why questions at the core, then how, then 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 an organization’s core ideology (values + purpose) and its envisioned future (vision).
Placing values, purpose, vision, and strategy in a ‘Why-erarchy’ is useful because it emphasizes the distinct yet connected questions that unify people into teams and organizations.
Remember Mad Libs, with those crazy fill-in-the-blanks stories? Imagine your team members each having a Mad Libs page to complete about your organization's mission. Imagine that the page contains starters for values, purpose, vision, and strategy—but only you can see the structure, and you are asking them for a series of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions. So people fill in the blanks with the first word or 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 from disorganized, directionless, or self-directed (mad-lib) behavior. Because of their differing focus, values, purpose, vision, and strategy guide teams through different challenges.
To grasp the power of the layers of the Mission Why-erarchy, it’s helpful to think through an example. Right now, you’re reading this blog post—likely because you’re curious about mission. Complete the ‘Why-erarchy’ that captures your mission for this action.. You’re reading a blog post - what is your mission?
Ask yourself about identity –
Two core values that make the topic of this blog - mission - important to me are ____________ and ____________.
With a strong mission, the purpose I hope to achieve is ____________. Ask yourself about direction – My vision for defining a mission in my team or organization is ____________.
My strategy to align people in collective pursuit of a mission is ____________. Now, as you consider your responses, is reading this blog about mission a directionless activity for you, or one that connects to your pursuit of specific values, beliefs, decisions, and actions?
Each blank in the Why-erarchy, when filled in intentionally (not in random Mad Lib style), builds meaning and energy and increases clarity and intent. Clarity and intent are especially important when many individuals and teams must align and coordinate decisions and actions to produce organizational success—to achieve the organization’s mission.
It's not a competition. Instead, at different times, each element can rise to be the most relevant. 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 organization 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 its customers' security needs and how Acme employees discuss and act on this need in every role, from product development to customer sales and care to claims.
Purpose is the reason why an organization exists. Purpose describes why the work of your organization matters in the world. If you tell someone what service or product your organization offers, your purpose answers the questions, “So what? Who cares? Why is that work meaningful?”
Purpose is timeless. Regardless of your organization’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 organization 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, Acme team members can point to how the purpose statement introduces an active verb, "protect." 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”. 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 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.
Example: Acme’s Vision: “Nobody worries about funeral costs ever.”
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 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 its core competencies and established infrastructure toward a related but distinct problem. The purpose and external value would unite the old and new projects under common meaning.
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 laid out, Acme team members know specific approaches right now that they can lead and support. The higher-level values and purpose elements from the Acme 'why-erarchy clarify identity. . The vision and strategy provide clear direction to guide the team. Strategy reduces confusion about exactly how the team is moving forward together so that, team members know what performance excellence is required, and where innovative ideas are most needed.
It’s not about the statements. An organization doesn't need all of these statements—or any of them—to thrive. However, every organization needs collective efforts that produce value in its markets. The reflection and consensus required to formulate clear and memorable statements of mission, values, purpose, vision, and strategy improve coordination and culture and create a concise leadership message that can permeate all business and people practices.
Stating a clear identity and direction creates deeper connection points for customers and team members. Experiencing a well-considered identity and direction in the day-to-day resonates and draws people 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 living a mission that encompasses values, purpose, vision, and strategy helps people establish a meaningful connection energized toward accomplishing important work that matters.