Friday, March 11, 2011

Vision-Mission Hyperbole

“Never mistake activity for achievement.” —John Wooden

Vision and mission statements... are they a rudder for an organization’s direction or are they just some arbitrary name written on its hull? How do we feel about the crop of vision/mission statements springing up all over our world? Do you find yourself saying, “Gee, it sure is nice to know that my educational pursuits or my efforts in the work place dwell in a house with these pronounced values.” Do we require such reassurance? Are we that insecure?

As you probably have already guessed, I have some reservations about what this public illustration/display of purpose, mission, or vision is all about. However, before dropping a cynicism bomb here, I thought it worthy to investigate these polished proclamations.

I was amused to find the subtle difference between a mission statement and a vision statement. Yet, I wonder how many “average-joes” (like myself) have made an honest effort to interpret these statements—often posted in tandem—and drawing anything from them other than a bunch of high-brow, grandstanding, over-embellished fluff.

One of the first things we need to know is that such statements are a primary element in strategic planning. According to the rich sources of Wikipedia, “strategic planning is the formal consideration of an organization’s future course.” I’d consider this the rudder of the ship that everyone needs to see in feeling safer.

When it comes to strategic planning, three primary questions are tackled: 1) What the institution does? 2) For whom benefits? 3) How does the institution excel at what it does?

Couldn’t anyone answer these questions about a school? 1) educate. 2) those seeking an education—often called students. 3) hire educators who do their job well and hope the administrators stay out of the way.

* * *
Vision statement, mission statement—what’s the difference?
Again, Wikipedia speaks of the vision statement with those things of the future, “…describing how the organization would like the world to be in which it operates.” The on-line source goes on to say that the mission statement “…defines the fundamental purpose of an organization or an enterprise, succinctly describing why it exists and what it does to achieve its Vision.” Or simply, “what do we do?”

One has to wonder how we’ve gone on for so long without these public declarations popping out of every corner of a college campus or corporation. I’m unsure in making the connection, but much of it feels like it is the result of fear. Fear of not covering all the legal bases required in this age of sue-happy, disgruntled individuals who have given up on winning the lottery. I can almost see it in a courtroom...

Prosecuting attorney: Dr. College President, does the school have a mission statement and is that mission statement clearly displayed for the campus population’s view?

Dr. College President: No sir, but we are working on it at this very moment. We just formed the Strategic Planning committee last month.

Prosecuting attorney: Well, there you have it your honor and members of the jury. The school has failed to provide its clients any idea of where the institution is going or how it plans on getting there. I rest my case.

If such glorified statements are simply covering our backside, I would lump them in the same category as those innocuous, minimum-requirement disclaimers such as “batteries not included,” “Acme is an EOI,” and “Any views or opinions presented in this email are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the company.”

And if they are not affiliated with anything of legalese, perhaps they are only words for the sake of writing and hearing—our own hooptedoodle (see Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday). As if to say, “We’d like to demonstrate our mastery of... of, language (I suppose). We hope it doesn’t get in the way of your efforts here. Skip it if you wish.”

* * *

What annoys me the most about these statements is they all basically say the same thing, and rarely reflect anything unique about the organization or institution that it serves. And yet we place so much stock in coming up with a unique way of saying something that’s incredibly universal and considered a given.

Here’s an example. Consider the mission statements of three educational institutions: Binghamton University (New York), Northwest College (Wyoming) and Ball State University (Indiana). Can you determine which vision statement belongs to the above? (I’ve left the names out and replaced words such as “university,” or “college” with “school.”)

1) Our school will be a national model of excellence for challenging, learner-centered academic communities that advance knowledge and improve economic vitality and quality of life.
2) Our school is a premier public school dedicated to enriching the lives of people in the region, nation and world through discovery and education and to being enriched by its engagement in those communities.
3) Through a superior teaching, learning, and living environment, our school will be a dynamic and distinguished educational leader that shapes a positive future for students and the many communities it serves.

The answers are listed at the bottom of this post.

I suspect few of us are bright enough (or lucky enough) to differentiate between these three proclamations, and as one friend of mine said not long ago, “Gobblydegook from any institution sounds the same.”

Anyone want to compare mission statements?
As I’ve contemplated these two crowning edicts that so poorly define what an organization or institution is, I’m reminded of a lackluster business class I attended as an undergrad at Arizona State. Often I walked out of any given session thinking to myself that the day’s lesson was simply an organized and overblown presentation on common sense.

In light of all this, I think Nike may have outdone everyone in their “vision/mission” statement—“Just Do It.”

Clearly I’m a skeptic, but I do find comfort in knowing there are instances where such endeavors of purpose are successful and clearly vital and important to those on board, like the comment from one of my Facebook friends who stated, “I am so lucky to work where I do…we’ve grown from 123 employees in 2000 to 250 employees as of this year and we not only hold our vision/mission statement dear to our hearts but we have 250 people protecting the culture. It truly does come from the top. I’m happy to say ours is a rudder!”

Vision Statement Answers: 1) Ball State, 2) Binghamton, 3) Northwest.