Reframing Vision & Mission: The Concept Of ‘Governing Ideas’

I’ve been reading a book called ‘Presence,’ as part of a different sort of project that I’ve been working on over the last little while. Written by Peter Senge (of ‘Fifth Discipline’ fame), Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers, it is a different sort of book that endeavours to address how best to tackle some of the most complex issues we are currently encountering in society.

Much of the book is a conversation between the four of them as they endeavour to develop a structure that explains how to support large-scale changes in groups, the pivotal concept of which is ‘presencing’: the ability to see the whole – the larger picture, if you will – and from that view being able to move past the compartmentalized, subject-object mode of problem solving that demands that big problems must be made small before they can be solved.

One of the interesting concepts that stood out for me is an assertion, attributed to Bill O’Brien of Hanover Insurance, that most organizations are governed by “mediocre ideas.” What was meant by this is that, in looking at the foundational principles or concepts of an organization – the mission, vision and values by which it operates – most organizations have statements that are at best generic pablum. They are statements that are written because they sound good, or express ideas that organizations are ‘supposed’ to value, but in no way actually influence activity or behaviours in the organization.

Certainly, there is a lot that is true in this statement. In a research study of 114 actual mission statements, Newsom & Hayes found that the majority of mission statements were “…amazingly vague, vapid, evasive, or rhetorical, lacking specificity or clear purpose…full of honorable verbiage signifying nothing.” In other words, they didn’t really say anything. Given that the primary objective of mission (and vision and value) statements is to guide actual behaviour, this is more than a little worrying. It implies that for the most part they don’t provide much guidance at all, which was exactly the point that O’Brien was making.

In Presencing, the authors suggest that “Ideas move from good ideas to governing ideas when they become the foundation of an organization’s system of governance — that is, when they become a source of decision-making power.” The idea of a ‘governing idea’ is a powerful one. It suggests that, crafted properly, mission, vision and value statements should actually guide decision making within organizations. Taken further, this shouldn’t just define how those at the apex of the organization make decisions; their purpose, in fact – the reason they are governing – is to provide decision making guidance at all levels of the organization.

This is an empowering concept on two levels. Firstly, it is rare in my experience and my research for mission statements and the like to provide much actual guidance in decision making. Many of them are sufficiently bland (offering rote commitments to customer service, shareholder return, market leadership and the like) as to provide no guidance whatsoever – virtually any action could be plausibly supported. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, many within organizations – even at an executive level – don’t feel that they have much power to make decisions at all.

So what would make a mission statement – or a vision or values statement – something that could be considered a ‘governing idea’? There are some fundamental criteria that need to be met, in my view. First, they have to be relevant: they need to be related to what the organization actually does, and speak to the actual products and services of the organization, and how they are delivered. They also need to be tangible: there should be concrete specifics in terms of what the organization is trying to do, and how to do it. Thirdly, they need to be meaningful: for a statement or set of principles to be relevant, people need to see themselves, their jobs and their roles within the context of the statement, and be able to apply it to their jobs or roles, no matter where in the hierarchy they are. Finally, they need to be credible: they can’t just be lip service, platitudes or pie-in-the-sky fantasies. They have to provide pragmatic, real and attainable statements of guidance.

This, admittedly, creates a pretty high bar, and one that many current sets of governing principles would not pass. As an example, take the mission statement of BMW, a well respected manufacturer of luxury cars and motorcycles: “The BMW Group is the world’s leading provider of premium products and premium services for individual mobility.” If we analyze this statement, we could argue that it is actually sort of relevant: it acknowledges that they produce things that move people about. And yet, the statement is at the same time indescribably vague; ‘products and services for individual mobility’ could include, for example, a BMW airline. Or buses. Or wheelchairs. Walking canes, even. Perhaps personal rocketships. The statement was probably intended to be flexible (they do, for example, also manufacture bicycles) but the result is a generic statement that doesn’t really provide guidance.

What if, instead, they adopted something like the following: “The mission of the BMW group is to be recognized as the leading manufacturer of cars and motorcycles: Our vehicles must always be the most comfortable, the most safe, the most reliable, the most environmentally friendly, the most easy-to-use and the most coveted by our customers, and the most envied by our competitors.” While this is a slightly longer statement, admittedly, it isn’t a stretch, it is probably true, and it would hit the mark of being relevant, tangible, meaningful and credible. If I worked for BMW, and that was the mission statement, I would know what I needed to be doing – and what I needed not to do. I would be able to make meaningful decisions in the context of whatever role I might actually be playing within the organization.

Crafting a mission statement, or a vision statement, or a set of values, is hard work. A lot of time and effort can go into making something that is only a few short sentences long. Unfortunately, too often compromises get made along the way that takes something relevant and turns it into a meaningless platitude. The principles outlined above admittedly make the process harder, but at the same time they provide a clear measure of whether what results from the process is actually meaningful and effective.

If the mission, vision and values of your organization don’t meet the measure of what has been described as ‘governing ideas,’ then you will spend far more time clarifying, correcting, contradicting or countermanding your people than if you had just spent the time to get it right in the first place.

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