Purpose, Mission, Vision, Strategy: What Jobs Do They Do?

People throw around terms like purpose, mission, vision, and strategy. Too often, the implementations of these fail to produce the desired outcomes. Here’s how we think about them and what jobs they should do.

Purpose and Mission

Purpose — why our team or org exists
Mission — what we do and for whom

Both purpose and mission address the big “why” for a group. In practice, you rarely need both. Pick the one that best captures your “why.”

Bad purpose or mission statements are vague aspirations—”We exist to create a better world!” Good ones describe a meaningful, believable impact your org can create. For example, S&P Global’s mission is clear that they’re about providing information to support better decision making: “We accelerate progress in the world by providing intelligence that is essential for companies, governments and individuals to make decisions with conviction.”


Vision — a vivid description of what the world looks like when we’ve achieved our purpose or mission or some signifiant piece of it

A good vision takes the aspiration of a purpose/mission and makes it concrete and evocative. Your team members should read it and say, “Yes! That’s a future I want to help create!”

Ford’s early vision is a nice example of a vivid, concrete picture of a better future they intended to create:

We will build a motor car for the great multitudes…It will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces…. When we are through, everyone will be able to afford one…. the horse will have disappeared from our highways and the automobile will be taken for granted.


Strategy — the major steps to reach a vision

A good strategy communicates the 3-5 steps between here and there. The best strategies resolve complexity at every step. Good strategies have two flywheels built in—each step should achieve the purpose more and more, and each step should create the resources to achieve the next step.

Strategy should answer questions like, “Why are we doing this particular thing now?” and “What are we intentionally not doing at this step?”

When people complained to Elon Musk in 2006 that the Tesla Roadster seemed to have nothing to do with his stated vision for mass-market sustainable transportation, Musk responded with this blog post, “The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan (just between you and me).” Check it out to see a great example of a strategy to incrementally achieve an ambition vision.

Your Turn

Can you connect your day-to-day work to a larger strategy? Do you understand the vision your strategy is meant to fulfill? Does your purpose/mission provide a meaningful “why” for your work?

We want to hear from you. Email us to share: What part of this feels most difficult to do well? What’s hard about it?

We typically think of purpose and vision as tools for big goals. But effective leaders incorporate elements of these into their communication every day to build alignment. Join us at the October Humanizing Work Community Meetup as we explore this idea of purpose and vision as a daily leadership practice. RSVP to attend the free Zoom session here.

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