In business, when talking about writing a business plan, or when a consultant evaluates a business, sometimes a vision or mission statement are things that get discussed.
For a long time I have looked at these kind of things as fluff. It’s a bunch of people wordsmithing a document that will never be read outside of the announcement that it has been completed. YAY! The people writing the software, building the widgets and making sales are often scarcely aware that a mission or vision exists for the company they work for.
In those cases, yes, a vision statement is less than useless. It is wasted effort, it might even conflict with the actual evidence of the company’s actions.
But when used correctly, it can align thousands of people to all pull in the same direction. A great mission, can make people excited to work 80 hours/week, to jump out of bed knowing that what they do matters. It can get past the roadblocks to decision making by proving a roadmap to everyone about what they should or can work on.
In the early days of Google, they had a mission to organize the worlds information. This galvanized an army of amazing engineers to build some truly monumental technology to store and find everything on the internet. It encouraged them to tackle projects like scanning all books, and re-think email. Google has long since outgrown that mission
SpaceX is a company with the vision of having a sustainable colony on Mars. This ambitious goal underpins both top level strategy, and also bottom up decision making. People work there to be part of something amazing and as a result they are able to hire some of the smartest people.
There is a reason why spaceX will not go public until after they reach Mars. The stock market doesn’t care about bold missions, they want quarterly reports that show revenue growth and profits. Looking at Google as an example, the pursuit of business growth for shareholders eventually resulted in the cancellation of many benefitial products. The justification of a project requires a solid business case that it must not only be profitable, but also big enough to be worth pursuing.
All it takes is one bad quarter for some pencil pusher to call for the cancellation of a fun mission-aligned project. After a few of those, we stop believing that the mission is the mission. It stops being fun to work there, it becomes harder to attract the best people.
The thing about making a vision or mission work is repeating it ALL THE TIME. Put it into every presentation, every memo, every email, talk about it in every interview. When people believe that the vision is real, that the company can actually achieve it that’s when the positive benefits of having a vision.
As the leader of a company, only create a vision if you are going to do what it takes to make people believe the vision is real and possible based on the actions the company makes.