Predicting the Future
How your vision, mission, and strategy will shape your path
A recurring theme during my off-hours while working on my own venture and communing with other Product folks in various Slack communities has been establishing a vision, mission, and strategy along with objectives to support them. It’s come up enough that it seems to be an often-overlooked step when trying to bring something new into the world, be it a product, a startup, or a team.
I try not to wrangle too much with semantics when it comes to what terms organizations have (to name a few: goals, business drivers, and outcomes are common), but the rigor around defining the concepts — whatever you happen to call them — is invaluable.
When you’re running on the high of executing upon some new initiative, it’s easy to get lost in the tactics. Let’s face it: getting stuff done is incredibly satisfying, and I myself am a huge proponent of chunking things up to get lots of little things done as efficiently as possible. Establishing (or revisiting) such lofty ideas as vision, mission, and strategy might seem like a distraction in the thick of execution.
Sometimes we get so caught up in getting stuff done that we start to do things for the sake of doing things. Think about blazing a trail through a jungle, your machete cutting through brush like butter. You’re making progress, relentlessly moving forward. But then you look up and realize you’ve been so focused on swinging the blade that you’ve lost track of where you’re going.
The trail you’re blazing might lead to nowhere of consequence, or, worse, to imminent doom.
Understanding the path you’re on — and sharing that understanding with the rest of your travel party — is crucial to success, even if your aspirations and purpose are nebulous and notional. Put simply, if you have no idea what success looks like, how will you know once you’ve arrived?
Breaking It Down
I see setting one’s vision, mission, strategy, and objectives as a form of decomposition. Start with a grandiose, idealized picture of the world the way you want it to be, and then figure out how to get there.
And so we start with the Vision: Where do we want to go? Where are we striving toward? Where do our actions take the world around us?
For some organizations, this represents a world devoid of the pain your customers experience for which your value proposition solves:
A world in which no one ever loses their car keys
For others, it might reflect that you can do something better than anyone else can, and it shows:
Walter’s Widgets is the leading national supplier of widgets with over 80% market share
For a team, Vision might be something a little more grounded but no less aspirational:
Every customer interaction is a positive experience
From the Vision, we should be able to extract a mission that is unique to our situation. Why does our organization exist? Why should customers care? Why do our team’s activities matter?
If, for example, our vision is a world in which no one ever loses their car keys, our mission might be to enable vigilant car key awareness through education and planning. Or we might have a mission to offer our customers the fastest, friendliest, most effective service possible to promote our vision of every customer interaction being positive.
If we have a mission, then we need to have a strategy for achieving it. How are we going to be successful? How do we fulfill customers’ needs? How do we make an impact?
Things start to get a little more specific, here, and our strategy needs to be actionable. Maybe we offer training classes and workshops on effective car key placement. Perhaps we empower our customer service representatives to make any situation right on the very first call.
What and When
Of course, we can’t stop at strategy.
We need to establish some objective oversight to validate that our strategy is effective. We have to be able to answer, if only to ourselves, what measurable thing will we do by when to ensure not only that we’re aligned strategically but also that our strategy is working toward our mission and vision.
Despite the title of this story (… sorry …), we can’t really tell the future, so, like it or not, objectives really represent strategic bets that we’re moving some larger bar forward. We might say that our objective is to reduce lost car key rates by 75% (what) among those who attended workshops within the last three months (when).
Do we know for certain that we’ll definitely see those results? Almost certainly not. But, hopefully, either we’ve done just enough validation to feel like that’s realistic, or we recognize that we’re actively testing a hypothesis.
Bringing It Back Up
There might be multiple strategies that apply to your mission and vision, and there are certainly multiple possible strategies that could help you be successful.
There are also no doubt lots of things your team excels at that could be applied to adjacent (or maybe even unrelated) problems.
And that’s the point. Even our example car key do-gooders operate within a certain realm of possibilities, and they need ways to evaluate those possibilities against their long-term vision as well as for near-term viability.
Should they use their capable trainers to hold workshops to prevent people from losing things other than car keys, like sunglasses and wallets? Maybe, but then they should revisit their vision.
Could they instead use technology to help people keep track of their keys rather than relying on awareness and education? That’s possible, but they need to understand if they can financially accommodate an additional strategy, if this represents a strategic pivot, and if they need to revisit their mission overall (there was a reason they picked education originally, right?).
The point here is that we need to establish a true north for our teams, absolutely, but we need to be prepared to adapt to magnetic shifts if they occur.
Breaking It Down Even Further
It’s easy to assume that visions, missions, and strategies (and the objectives that support them) are exclusive to startups, C-suite executives, or boards of directors, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Not only is it important for everyone involved in an organization to understand the overall vision, mission, strategy, and objectives, but disparate functional areas (e.g. departments or divisions within large corporations) should feel empowered to have their own visions, their own missions, their own strategies, and their own ways to measure success.
If my mission is to put people on Mars, then I’ll need teams with grand visions to help me achieve it. Recruiting may envision a world in which top scientific talent is in my candidate pipeline constantly. Engineering may have a mission to create more efficient propulsion through emergent technology. Food Sciences may have a strategy to keep astronauts healthy by employing novel dehydration techniques.
… you get the idea.
Through alignment, these organizationally disparate teams can find themselves all working toward making a significant, measurable impact on the world.
Your organization or team can make a significant, measurable impact on the world, too.
So get started. What’s your vision?