The Pillars of Planning: Mission, Values, Vision
His inability to grasp "the vision thing" was an important part of George Bush's undoing in the '92 election; but he's not the only one to have a hard time articulating wishes and dreams for the future. In over twenty years of consulting with organizations of every stripe, I've seen again and again how groups are brought to crisis by conflicts over basic issues of mission, values, and vision. Without these basic agreements in place, no organization is truly viable.
Mission, values, and vision are the glue that holds an organization together. They describe what you're trying to do, how you want to go about it, and where you're headed. Knowing these things helps to keep your organization on track. It gives you a yardstick you can always use to measure your present performance and plans against your aspirations.
They also sound abstract, new age, and downright jet-puffed to a lot of people, especially those who are burning to move forward with a real-world project, and don't want to hang back jawboning about people's wishes and dreams. Many people who style themselves as "pragmatic" get away with skipping over this important stage of building a strong foundation of consensus for their organizing. If you don't take the time to articulate mission, values, and vision on the front end, you'll pay for it later.
In our consulting practice, we're often called in to work with organizations when their staffs or boards are locked into what are described as "personality conflicts." A little exploration reveals not irreconcilable personalities, but real differences on issues about governance, finances, purpose and program. The contenders' personal styles and entire beings have come to stand in for unresolved tensions concerning mission, values, and vision. John is a compulsive organizer; he's worried about taking risks, especially financial risks. Lisa is spontaneous and improvisatory; she's worried that the organization will lose its soul by pinning everything down. Each has collected a little camp of supporters, and every issue that comes up is ammunition in their competition. No one is talking about the deeper questions this competition obscures: what they want to accomplish as an organization, and what measure of risk-taking and improvisation are appropriate to that mission and their values. At this stage, it takes extraordinary time and effort -- and no small measure of mutual forgiveness -- to get the organization back on track again.
The time to articulate mission, values, and vision is now - at the outset of an organization's life, if possible, and at the first opportunity if the organization is already underway. Each element has its distinct characteristics and role in organizational life:
Most people can relate to a personal vision, their personal values, their mission in life. But when two or more people agree to work together, the difficulties of arriving at such articulations multiply. When you want to bring new people in, you must give them ways to participate in the vision of the organization. Everyone's preferences and abilities must be taken into account for a group to work together optimally. What this means practically is that group members need focused opportunities to exchange ideas and make decisions about group mission, values and vision.
Exploring and agreeing on fundamentals of purpose and process most often takes place in face-to-face group meetings, through facilitated discussion. One way to focus such a meeting is to lead a "guided fantasy" of the group's activities five or ten years down the line, then discuss the ideas it brought up and have a working group prepare a draft after the meeting, summarizing the results. Doing an exercise like this can encourage people to develop their visions, loosening imaginative powers rather than falling into a polarized argument. Many other approaches are also possible, such as:
On the grandest scale, a group with the large ambition of serving the entire community can enlarge the process by inviting a wider public to contribute to their vision through community meetings or arts events. Using methods such as those listed above can bring more people into the envisioning process, demonstrating the organization's commitment to listening.
Not everyone approaches articulating mission, values, and vision in the same way. It's important to recognize and respect diverse approaches to questions of ultimate purpose in a group. Some are fired with a passionate vision of something specific that needs doing. Others have a more general view of how they'd like the future to look, and more tentative notions about how to get there. Still others do best at identifying and analyzing problems and working through to solutions. Others may be motivated by the desire to work with people they respect or admire, or to get to know new people with whom they share interests. Different ways of defining a group's mission and values may seem foolish or even alarming to some organizers; but organizations are strongest when many aptitudes, interests, and points-of-view can pull together.
Since questions of mission may evoke differing bedrock assumptions, discussing them can be complicated. Participants in such discussions must be aware of many considerations:
In my experience, mission, values, and vision don't come neatly packaged in separate mental compartments. Instead, they are braided together in people's hearts and minds. For planning purposes, I have always striven to keep the process as open as possible. Instead of focusing a group on filling in each separate blank of mission, values, and vision in turn, I invite everyone to share the entire picture of what they'd like to see the group doing and how. For some people, it will be most comfortable to focus on the purpose of the organization itself: its mission. Others will naturally begin imagining how the world will change as the result of the group's work, the array of things they'd like it to do: their vision. And others will find themselves thinking first about how the kinds of groups the organization should involve and how they should work with each other and the public: elements of the organization's values. After welcoming all these contributions, planners can easily review the results of the brainstorming session and harvest what is needed to formulate mission, values and vision statements. The alternative approach -- trying to engage a whole group of dreamers in drawing fine distinctions between what's a vision and what's a value -- can easily dampen enthusiasm and cooperation.
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