Why we need a vision and mission

In medicine, my aim is to heal, to do no harm, and to comfort. Comfort in the sense of coming alongside, strengthening, and consoling. Advocating for my patient means stepping into his or her shoes. And from the vantage point of the medical world, where life, death, and suffering are literally part of a day’s experience, organizational mission and vision statements seem to be of secondary importance.

But human institutions are the foundation of civilization. The ideas of the university, the marketplace, regulations, and government make modern medicine possible. And one doesn’t need to be an organizational psychologist or have a master’s in business administration to pause and to appreciate the impact of an organization’s vision and mission statement.

Kraft’s vision was, “Helping people around the world eat and live better.” A future, not-yet-realized view is put into a few short words. It is clear, simple, and inspirational. The vision tells me what the company is all about. And it should appeal to the emotions, bringing people together to excite them about a future good.

An anecdote told by Joel Brockner, PhD relates to a cosmetics company. The company founder, in an interview, said the company wanted to “help women become the beautiful creatures God intended them to be.” My purpose in including this is not to dissect the merits of this aim, but to illustrate how a few words can imbue ordinary work with meaning. If this vision statement is embraced, then one isn’t simply earning money by selling cosmetics, but is doing God’s work. Selling cosmetics has been given a sense of purpose by an effective vision statement.

A mission statement, by contrast, is about the here and now. In order to accomplish the vision, what does the organization do, and for whom and how does the organization do it?

Louis Vuitton aims to “create products that embody unique savoir-faire, a carefully preserved heritage and a dynamic engagement with modernity.” Disney wants to “be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.” A mission statement shows how value is added. It shows what this company is doing that no one else can do.

In addition, a mission statement gives diverse members of an institution an organizing purpose. For a team comprising people with varying backgrounds and interests, the mission statement allows that team to place any particular decision within the overarching aim; this facilitates finding consensus and compromise.

And so, removing my white coat and thinking as a citizen of the United States, I’d like to pause to consider citizenship from this vantage point. What are the vision and mission of this society? Does the vision excite me? Does my current work further the mission? These questions are a useful exercise to fit the details of life into shared priorities and a common vision.

The United States Constitution provides an inspiring vision: the Constitution aims “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” One of the things I’d never really considered about the preamble is that the intent was not to instantly create a perfect union, but to make progress, to improve toward perfection.

If nothing else, my hope is that we share the sense of continual striving to improve how our society functions to achieve justice, peace, security and well-being. In future posts, I would like to propose a modern vision and mission, and discuss the shared values that unite in this purpose.


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