Executives, leaders, managers, and consultants love talking about mission, vision, strategy, and tactics; all concepts that are widely discussed but also widely misunderstood. Challenge someone to define what a company mission really is, and you’ll end up in an endless discussion about what constitutes the right definition. Google doesn’t solve your problem: you’ll find dozens of conflicting definitions of what a mission is on the internet.
I don’t claim to know any better, but I do have a simple solution to the problem of confusion: stop using these terms. They add little value and—even if you believe you’ve nailed their meaning—it is unlikely to resonate with the rest of your organization.
Here is what I suggest.
Mission and vision
Mission and vision statements are essentially goals. However, it’s terminology that people don’t use naturally. I’ve heard many executives and leaders argue about the correct definition of mission and vision. If they’re not clear on what mission and vision mean, how will this ever resonate with the rest of their employees?
Before explaining how to avoid talking about mission and vision, let’s first have a closer look at them.
Your mission is why your organization was founded
A mission describes why an organization exists. It’s the reason why the company was created in the first place: its purpose.
“To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (Facebook)
“To enable people to live on other planets” (SpaceX)
The mission usually excites employees as well as customers. This is why you often find the mission on a company’s website: it’s something they’re proud of.
Your vision is what your organization wants to become
A vision takes into account the current state of the company and sets the direction of where the organization wishes to go. It’s about what the organization wants to become.
“To become the worldwide leader in retailing” (Walmart)
“To be the communications leaders in an increasingly connected world” (Vodafone)
A vision is often less exciting for the outside world. It’s usually about becoming market or industry leader. You’ll read about it in an organization’s annual shareholder report, as stakeholders of the company, such as shareholders, management, and employees, do care about it.
How to avoid talking about Mission & Vision
People like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk often talk about the “ultimate goal” of the organizations they are building. Since the meaning of mission and vision is widely misunderstood, and it’s more natural to talk about goals, I recommend that organizations merge their mission and vision into an ultimate goal. One goal that every employee understands and can remember. Your organization’s Northern Star, something that guides your strategy and tactics. The structure of such an ultimate goal can simply be “[VISION] by [MISSION].” Here is how this would look like for Walmart:
Strategy and tactics
Strategy and tactics are equally confusing terms, but essentially these are also goals. Again, before explaining how to avoid talking about them—let’s first have a closer look at what they mean.
Strategy is what happens before the battle
Strategy is a military term and comes from the Greek words “stratos” (army or resources) and “ago” (leading). A proper business definition would, therefore, be: to lead your resources for obtaining a goal.
Strategy matters because no organization has infinite resources. Were resources unlimited, no strategy would be needed—a company could simply do everything it wanted to. With limited resources, strategy becomes critical, and choices have to be made. By setting out your strategy, you’re leading your resources towards your ultimate goal.
Tactics are what happens during the battle
Tactics is also a military term and comes from the Greek word “taktike” (the art of organizing an army). To use a military metaphor: strategy happens before the battle, tactics are implemented during the battle.
If your goal is to win the war, as a leader, you’ll have to decide how to lead your resources for obtaining that goal. E.g. you might attack from the left flank or the right. That would be a typical strategic decision: strategy is the thinking that happens before the battle.
You don’t execute directly on the strategy; strategy is turned into reality through tactics. As a good leader, you should leave it up to your teams to decide the right tactics and how to execute them. They should decide whether to attack at day or night, which weapons to deploy, and so on.
The complexity of strategy and tactics
What makes strategy and tactics so difficult to understand are their morphability and context-sensitivity. What could be strategic for one organization, could be tactical for another. What helps me differentiate between the two, is to look at strategy as something that is difficult, and requires time to change. This is also why strategic decisions take time and are usually taken on executive-level.
Tactics, on the other hand, can be changed easily and frequently. Sticking to our military metaphor: if your strategy for winning the war is to assemble your entire army and attack via the left flank, you can’t change course all of a sudden and attack via the right. However, if you’ve made a tactical decision to attack at night which is not working out, you can retreat and attack during the daytime instead.
Looking at strategy as something that can’t be changed quickly also helps understand why it’s hard for large enterprises to keep up with the speed at which startups can move. A 6-month goal for a startup can already be strategic; if the strategy is not working out, they can try something different. A large enterprise will need, for a variety of reasons, a lot more time to make such adjustments.
How to avoid talking about strategy and tactics
When it comes to strategy and tactics, I recommend instead that organizations simply talk about goals. Strategy is about leading your resources towards your (ultimate) goal, hence strategy is only set on company-level. Strategy can be best reflected in Company goals, and for most organizations, these Company goals would be created annually. Tactics are best reflected as Team goals, which would be created quarterly for most companies. Everyone understands Company goals and Team goals, and it’s easy to learn that Company goals are set once a year and Team goals once per quarter.
Setting goals is a simple way to avoid the whole strategy/tactics-discussion and a great way for leaders to communicate where they want to go, in a way that’s easy to understand for everyone in the organization.
Sidenote: larger organizations may also on annual department- or subsidiary-level, which is OK because the same logic can be applied to it. There are also organizations that have 3- to 5-year Company goals, on top of their annual Company goals. This is also fine but left out for the sake of simplicity.
Bringing it all together
Let’s have a look at RyanAir. It could very well be that their ultimate goal is something along the lines of: “To become the biggest airline in Europe (in terms of revenue) by offering the lowest fares possible on all routes.” Such an ultimate goal already sets out a clear focus which helps the consumer understand the value they can derive from flying RyanAir, and it helps employees take the right decisions while executing.
From this ultimate goal, you can derive your Company goals (it makes little sense to define Company goals without a Northern Star). In RyanAir’s case that could be to “bring another significant reduction to the average ticket price in 2018”. Such a goal would be strategic because it’s difficult and time-consuming to change. If the organization starts working on this goal in Q1 and Q2, and all of a sudden in Q3 the goal changes to “providing an amazing customer experience” (which costs money), most of that work could have been for nothing. You can make such a change, but you need to be careful and think it through (although in this example it would make little sense since it doesn’t seem aligned with the ultimate goal).
An ultimate goal—if formulated well—can bring a lot of clarity to your organization. The same goes for strategic goals. It’s, therefore, crucial to make all these goals transparent and easily accessible.
I recommend you to use the OKR framework to manage your goals, and also to start tracking the actual things that will be done (“outputs”) to achieve the Team Goals. At Perdoo we call these outputs “Initiatives,” which could be anything from a project to a list of tasks. The full picture then looks like this:
Henrik-Jan van der Pol is a tech entrepreneur on a mission to help companies achieve moonshot goals. As a former management consultant, he realized that the modern workplace is broken: leaders fail to unite their team behind shared goals, and employees don't see the value of their work. To fix this, Henrik launched the enterprise goal management software Perdoo together with his co-founder Jonathan. Based on the framework OKR (Objectives & Key Results), which was popularized by Google, Perdoo helps companies connect strategy with execution and focus on achieving results.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Henrik-Jan van der Pol and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.