Vision and Mission Statements

Welcome to the New Year!

In my reflections at the end of last year, I emphasized was the importance of having strategic and tactical plans in the implementation of technology in medical education. I would suggest that such plans are useful in every aspect of education.

Over the years, I have participated in the process of developing strategic plans for a health sciences university, medical schools, departments within educational institutions, not-for-profit groups, and entrepreneurial enterprises. Some of these processes have been successes; some have been disasters. The ones that are successful have had common elements; those that failed are ones that eschewed those elements.

Much has been written about these processes and how they should be implemented. I have not read most of that literature but have been influenced most by the information on developing plans for small businesses. I am going to reflect on the experiences I have had that were most successful. Generally speaking, there are five steps in the process:

  • Developing vision and mission statements
  • Doing a SWOT analysis.
  • Developing the strategic plan.
  • Developing and implementing tactical plans.
  • Doing reviews and continuous quality improvement.

All five steps are essential elements in developing the strategic plan that is successful. In the next few reflections, I will describe these steps and what I found worked and that which failed.

Vision and Mission Statements

When I started in these processes, we always talked about mission statements but rarely talked about a vision statement. However, both are essential. They are related; but there are clear differences. Here are my definitions of the two types of statements.

Vision statement: A vision statement is a short description of the “who we are” as an organization.

Mission statement: A mission statement is a short description of “what we are” as an organization.

Thus, a vision statement defines “us” as an organization and a mission statement defines what we do.

The Vision Statement

The vision statement drives the direction of the organization. It is what we want to be and what we want to be able to do. While there are aspirational components to the statement, it is focused on the core values and purposes of the organization (1). From my perspective, this statement is a short, succinct sentence which encompasses the “who” we are the “what” we want to be. The theoretical horizon for a vision statement is forever. It should be the immutable core of what the group is and should be not only now, not only in five or ten years, but forever. Thus, developing a vision statement requires an understanding of who we are within the framework of the world around us.

If, indeed, the vision statement is an immutable core of values and goals, then to reach the understanding of that statement, everyone has to “buy in” and everyone has to participate. If this vision is not shared by all, then it will not be successful. What this means is that those who are in place developing the vision need to understand and agree, and those who join later must understand and comply.

I would argue that it is possible to develop vision statements for individual units within an organization. This is an important exercise. For example, a core value for an IT (or medical education) unit could be to “enhance the national and international reputation of the organization.” This core value implies that the unit does things to enhance reputation: new and novel implementations of technology, be leaders in outside organizations, participate in building the national and international consensus on best practices, etc. Another reasonable core value could be “enhance technology services within the institution.” (This one is tricky. It can be a core value or it can be a mission. The implications are different, as we will discuss below.) By adopting this vision, the core value is focused on internal provision of technology services.

The vision statement must be used as a guide to decision-making within the organization. Fundamentally stated, does doing “x” advance the organization toward the articulated vision? The decision is mostly binary: if yes, then it needs to be done; if no, then it doesn’t matter and should be removed from consideration. For example, if a core value is to enhance reputation of the organization, then the organization is committed to supporting its members to become leaders of national and international groups. If the core value is directed internally (for example, enhance technology services within the institution), then there is little or no commitment to supporting its members to become leaders of national and international groups.

The Mission Statement

This differs from the mission statement. The mission statement is the articulation of what we do here and now. This is how we define ourselves. There may be gaps, but this is what we do. For the most part, it sets the parameters of our daily operations.

For example, the Microsoft mission statement is “our mission is to enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential” (2). This statement is supplemented by some explanatory sentences, but it is a declaration that this is what Microsoft does. The key words in the mission statement are “enable” and “realize … full potential.” I interpret this to mean that they make it possible for their market segments (people and businesses) to achieve (realize) the goals and objectives that the market segments want to achieve. This does not limit them to hardware or software or services. What it says is that Microsoft sees as its mission the ability to provide resources to individuals and businesses to get where they want to go.

At Google, it is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (3). So, Google says that their mission is to organize the world’s information (thus both digital and non-digital facts and combinations of facts) and to make it available for people to obtain (accessible) and useful (can be used by the person seeking the information). It is interesting that they use the word information as information is much more than just data or facts. Thus part of Google’s mission is to help collate and interpret data.

Both of these are excellent examples of corporate mission statements. They are short, succinct, and inspirational descriptions of what these companies do. In contrast, the Apple mission statement (“Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad”; 4) is neither inspirational nor short. It is a catalog of what they do now (more like a sales catalog). It contrasts poorly with Steve Job’s description of the mission of Apple as “to make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” (5)

What about examples from medical schools?

Harvard Medical School has clear mission, “to create and nurture a diverse community of the best people committed to leadership in alleviating human suffering caused by disease” (6). The key phrases at Harvard are “create and nurture,” “diverse community,” “best people,” “leadership,” and “alleviating human suffering.” The phrase “caused by disease” acknowledges the other facts causing human suffering but indicates that it is not within the realm of the medical school’s mission to alleviate those causes.

My current institution also has a well-defined and clear mission, “The Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University is a premier, research-intensive medical school dedicated to innovative biomedical investigation and to the development of ethical and compassionate physicians and scientists” (7). At Einstein, the key phrases are “premier, research-intensive,” “innovative biomedical investigation,” “development of ethical and compassionate physicians and scientists.”

In contrast to Harvard’s declaration of creating a diverse community of leaders, Einstein is focused on research. In reading the two mission statements, it would be reasonable to interpret that Harvard is primarily interested in creating leaders whereas Einstein creates ethical and compassionate physicians and scientists (who could be leaders, but are more in the trenches).

As a disclaimer (though it should be obvious), I had and have no role in writing or the official interpretation of these statements. What I have written above is just how I have read and interpreted them.

I helped develop an IT mission elsewhere that read, “the mission of the IT organization is to provide outstanding service and technical support within the organization.” This is similar to the vision statement above. But, the implications are different. In a vision statement, we make decisions based on that core value – enhanced technology services. In a mission statement, it says that we do “outstanding” (anything less is not good enough) “service” (not just technology, but service is what we provide first) and “technology support” (restricting the types of support to technology) within the organization.

It is an important exercise to develop a vision statement and a mission statement. Regardless of size or whether the group is a part of a larger organization. When developing a strategic plan, it is crucial that the team undergoes this exercise. In the process of developing (or re-affirming) a vision statement, the team identifies what they believe are the core value and core aspirations of the group. This defines how decisions should be made. The mission statement identifies what it is that we do. This defines the direction of activities of the group.

By developing or reaffirming vision and mission statements at the beginning of a strategic planning process, it helps the team come to an identity that can be used to drive the next steps. That is, once we have a vision (our core values) and mission (what we do), we need to look at our organization to see where we excel and fail at our vision and mission (SWOT analysis), what are the themes of future activities to realize our mission (strategic plan), what are the things we can do to make those themes reality (tactical plans and implementation), and how we determine if we have met our goals (review and continuous quality improvement). Those I will touch on in future reflections.

Notes:

(1) See Building Your Company’s Vision. J.C. Collins and J.I. Porras, Harvard Business Review. September 1996.
(2) http://www.microsoft.com/enable/microsoft/mission.aspx.
(3) http://www.google.com/about/company/
(4) http://www.strategicmanagementinsight.com/mission-statements/apple-mission-statement.html
(5) http://www.businessinsider.com/apples-new-mission-statement-2013-8
(6) http://hms.harvard.edu/about-hms/facts-figures
(7) http://www.einstein.yu.edu/about/

Note: The views in this commentary are my own and not necessarily those of my institution, employer, or colleagues.

(Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse on January 6, 2015 at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/vision-mission-statements-terence-ma)

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