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So often the words, Mission and Vision, and Purpose are confused in business: they are used without clarity or distinction between them.  What do they mean? Can we draw a clear distinction between them.  How do we get the jargn and smokeout of the way?

If you want a laugh here is possibly the worst mission statement I have come across.

It is best to tackle these in stages.  First we need a simple approach to tacke the problem.  How about Plain English (yes radical eh!)

Plain English reveals the difference between mission and vision

I have a rule – if there are two words in plain English they probably mean two different things.

In these circumstances it is useful to explore how these words are used in plain English to establish distinctions, rather than looking for often weak and poor use in business.  So let us see what these are in plain English and use two very closely related words to create the distinction between them.

First let us use plain english to tackle the difference between mission and vision.

A vision is created by a visionary

A Vision might be held by a Visionary: Someone who looks to the future and sees how they would like it to turn out.  The visionary holds a vision that is an image. A picture, that does not exist (yet).

A mission is carried out by a missionary

A Mission might be carried out by a Missionary: Someone who actually travels to the place to spread the message or achieve the change.  A mission is to travel with a purpose.  It is about the journey, perhaps to achieve the vision, but it is not the end state.

A missionary might set out to achieve a vision.

Now the Visionary might later set out on the Mission to implement their Vision.  Likewise, the Missionary might well have a Vision of what they are travelling to achieve.

The difference between mission and purpose.

When discussing Mission the word, “Purpose” also gets used. In some cases defining mission as if it is purpose.

I used to do that, and it is because it is easy to merge teh two ideas of going on a mission and having a purpose.  Again the two words are different in plain English.

I can understand why Mission and Purpose might be confused. It is helpful also to use the military terminology: the Purpose of the (military) Mission is usually clear: The mission is the attack and the reason for the mission (purpose of the mission) is to take the enemy land (the objective).

Similarly the Missionary has a purpose in travelling on their mission (say, the conversion of a particular group of people.)

Clear distinctions betwen vision, mission and purpose

So I think there is a clear distinction, in English language, between

  • Vision: – the desired state in the future
  • Purpose – The reason for the action
  • Mission – the act of moving towards the purpose to achieve part of the vision.
  • Objective: Capturing the landing ground itself.

For example, in June 1944 the vision was the overthrow of Germany and the Third Reich. The mission was operation Overlord, the purpose, was to establish a beachhead in Normandy, from which to launch more attacks towards Paris and Germany, and the objective of the mission was the capture of a beachhead, and harbours and to get the troops and equipment established.

Mission, vision and purpose suffer from the same problem at conception.

Let me introduce you to one of the underlying problems.  You know it.  You see the mission, purpose, vision or values summarised in 6 words.  In fact the Executie team used at least 10,000 words discussing those ideas before they were boiled down into the six you received.  On teh way, all the meaning and nuances were lost.  I call this “The ten thousand and six word problem“.

Any discussion of mission, vision and purpose is easier when you have made them concrete.  when you provide teh detail.  When you have clear distinctions  between teh concepts that help you expand each aspect differently.

It is the fluffy vague arm waving ones that people find most frustrating.  Here is one way to make your mission, vision and purpose more meaningful.

The language of business is full of words used without clarity of meaning and distinction

It is just that we do not use this language with such clarity in business. That is a shame because it causes confusion.

I find this is the best way to explain things without having to resort to alternative ambiguous definitions.   Remember, jargon should be between consenting adults in private.  If you are not in private, don’t use jargon.

I hope this distinction helps.  It is a great shame organisations choose to muddy plain English.  This is how I explain it to people in my strategy workshops. I try very hard to use the language consistently.  The problem is that many use these phrases in quite undistinct and ambiguous ways: that starts problems.  It makes difficult the communication of strategy, purpose, visions and missions.

Have a look at the wider strategy communication piece here.

Phil