Missions, Visions, Maturity Models, & Strategies
Tools for alignment, motivation, and inspiration
- Missions, visions, maturity models, and strategies are tools that help leaders align their teams to a north star, help motivate them to get there, and help inspire new ideas along the way
- Mission: Why something exists
- Vision: What it looks like to succeed
- Maturity Model: The journey to achieve a vision
- Strategy: A specific plan for how to progress
As leaders, we spend a lot of time finding ways to achieve longer term alignment, motivation, and inspiration for our teams. Unguided short term iteration can lead to exhaustion and disillusionment — especially if people start to lose their place in the journey and feel like they are stuck in a loop. We want teams to know where they are, where they are going, and why they exist. If we, as leaders, can convey that effectively, especially in a company that has a generative culture, we can sustain exuberance, increase original ideas, and work towards achieving success against a vision for our team and products.
Missions, visions, maturity models, and strategies are all tools that can help leaders to convey the importance of work and can help achieve the goals of alignment, motivation, and inspiration. However, these four tools are often ambiguously confused with one another and are overcomplicated to the point of fatigue. I wrote this article to help disambiguate these tools and make them easier to access for other leaders. These tools can all be used together and each one helps with a unique aspect of what leaders need to align their teams around.
I’ve also found that these tools can help leaders refine their ideas about where their teams and products are headed. The use of them forces us to look beyond the horizon and can help us to think differently about how we set goals and coach our teams towards success. I’ve been pushing various leaders on my team over the past few months to use these tools and I’ve already seen lots of new ideas generated and a new outlook formed on what our teams can achieve.
Mission: Why something exists
A mission helps define why something exists. It helps team members and stakeholders understand what value we hope to fulfill and how we’ll measure success.
A good mission is both concise and collectively exhaustive in capturing the value that the subject (e.g., a team or product) is meant to obtain. A mission can also be a good way to capture the boundaries or the scope of a team or product. A mission is not a description of how we will obtain that value.
- Policygenius’ mission: Help get people the financial protection they need and feel good about it
- Our Platform team’s mission: Enable the engineering team to rapidly deliver value responsibly (reliably, securely, and of quality)
- Our TechOps team’s mission: Seamlessly provide the technology and support that reduces churn and allows the business to focus on its goals
Vision: What it looks like to succeed
Why a vision?
A vision helps depict what it looks like to fulfill the mission — i.e., what it looks like to succeed. A vision is also crucial for helping our teams engage with and execute against a strategy. It connects the work we do to the mission. Good visions are also opinionated about how we specifically succeed, given the context of things like the industry, the market, and who we are as a team.
Visions are versatile and can be used to explain the ideal outcome of almost anything. For example, we use visions for our company as a whole, our Engineering team as an organization, our Engineering team’s technology, our products, individual teams, and we even have visions for what we want to accomplish in an individual year — such as our 2022 engineering strategic vision.
Visions are one of the most important tools a leader can use, yet they often take us the longest to understand why they’re necessary or how to even construct one, myself very much included. I spent years painstakingly describing the optimal strategy (at least optimal in my own head) to teams and wondering why their eyes glossed over only 5 minutes into the presentation — or wondering why none of them retained any of the context around what we were trying to accomplish afterwards. The strategies we created were far too detailed to be easily understood in a one hour presentation. We needed a north star vision that explained what success looked like in order for the team to be able to digest the nuance of the detailed strategy.
What does a vision look like?
Like a mission, a vision also needs to be concise, because it needs to be easily understood, digested, and remembered. However, while a mission is typically one or two sentences, a vision is usually somewhere between two paragraphs to one and a half pages.
Visions can take different forms as long as they describe, from a high level, how we will achieve success. Here are a few example formats I have seen and used:
Focus areas and descriptions: This is probably the most straightforward format where focus areas are highlighted in a few easy to remember words or phrases and then they are described in a few sentences to clarify what the focus area means. For example, our TechOps team’s vision focuses on Support, Proactive Quality, and Innovation with each of those words/phrases leading into a paragraph that elaborates on the meaning. As another example, our leadership team kicked off strategic planning this year by drafting one-pagers for each of our product areas that described what strategic areas we would focus on in the coming year for those products. These one-pagers were then used as inputs into the rest of strategic planning, to help teams focus as they built out their strategic plans.
Press Release FAQs: Amazon popularized this format, which is typically used to create the vision for any given project. I’ve started toying with this format recently and drafted our 2022 engineering strategic vision using it. Here’s a good detailed description of this format along with an example (from Robert Monarch). What I like about this format is that it forces us to be concise and describe an end state by making the author write the vision as if it was to be read by the public. It forces us to make it easily consumable and make no assumptions about the existing knowledge the reader has.
Visual: Visual visions are great for slide decks and other types of presentations. They can help condense information (such as a one page Press Release FAQ) into a single slide by combining the text with visuals. The below example is a multi-year vision I put together in 2019 to show the vision for our Engineering Team and how we would achieve our mission within the company. There were many subsequent slides that dove into each piece of this one-pager, but this single slide became the north star and anchored all of the details of our strategy.
Maturity Model: The journey to achieve a vision
Why use a maturity model?
As humans, we often have the urge to want to just skip to the end — in the example of the engineering team vision above, wanting to jump straight to innovation and skip everything involved in alignment and enablement. Maturity models are helpful in conveying a journey and also pinpointing where we are on the path to the destination. They help us align on what we already do well and give us hints as to the next steps we can take to move forward, without getting ahead of ourselves. In an odd comparison, when I think about maturity models I think about Polynesian wayfinding — Polynesian navigators found their way at sea using a combination of knowing where they had been, environmental clues around them, and passed down tribal knowledge.
Maturity models can be the bridge between a long term vision (more than one year) and a time bound strategy. They are very useful for telegraphing beyond a strategy and also helping develop a strategy to progress towards that vision, but are less useful when we have a short term vision where a comprehensive strategy can easily convey the full journey.
What does a maturity model look like?
Maturity models are structured as incremental groups of measurable characteristics. For example, our first Engineering team maturity model (which the visual vision above depicts from a high level) has incremental groupings of Alignment, Enablement, and Innovation. Each of those groups has sets of characteristics (not shown here) mapped to them, such as documentation standards and interview plans, which are mapped to the Enablement maturity grouping. The journey that this example model conveys is that consistent innovation is the ultimate goal, but is only attained through effective alignment and enablement.
Incremental groups typically start at zero (or no characteristics achieved) and end at some idealized level of maturity (e.g., a vision for high maturity). By evaluating the characteristics, a user is able to pinpoint which incremental group they fall into, and thus will be able to identify their level of maturity. Again, using the example above, we may evaluate our team’s characteristics and determine that we are in the Enablement phase of our maturity.
Characteristics can represent anything from practices, to processes, to cultural characteristics, to feature sets built, to skills, to specific metric goals (such as efficiency or quality goals). They vary depending upon the subject of the maturity model, be it a team, a product, or an architecture.
Maturity models often have some sort of worksheet that allows individuals to assess a subject (e.g., themselves, their team, their product) in order to locate where the subject is on the model.
Maturity models don’t always have to be created from scratch. I recommend that leaders look for off the shelf models on the internet before trying to synthesize their own and then adapting it to their unique circumstances later. By doing this we can save time and also utilize industry wisdom. As an example, our InfoSec team pulls from several maturity models and frameworks including the Security & Privacy Capability Maturity Model, NIST CSF, and the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) program. Our TechOps team started with this IT Management Maturity Model. Even though our Engineering team maturity model I referenced above was not adapted from any specific model, it was influenced by books like Accelerate and Inspired, which talked at length about achieving high performance teams.
As a last example, career rubrics (a.k.a., employee performance rubrics or job performance rubrics) are also a form of a maturity model. They cluster skills (or performance characteristics) into successive role levels or performance levels. They are also written in a way where individuals can track their progress and create growth plans, which are strategies for career advancement.
Strategy: A specific plan for how to progress
Why use a strategy?
Strategies are plans that we and our teams execute against. They allow us and our teams to think ahead and plan out a specific period of time, aligning early to reduce the churn of chaos, rework, and unidentified dead-ends. They can help scope efforts by conveying what success looks like. Most importantly, they connect everyones day to day work back to the vision, which in turn connects to the mission.
What does a strategy look like?
Strategies have the most variability out of all of these alignment tools, especially since they are by far the most detailed of the four tools and are the ones that are most customized to our team, organization, and company.
Generically, most strategies are made up of a list of planned moves along with some sort of success criteria, which usually includes a time component. If we are talking about a team’s execution strategy, then these moves may take the form of projects or initiatives that use goals and time-boxing for success criteria. If it is a strategy for a product, then the moves may take the form of features built or value delivered. An employee’s growth plan (which, as mentioned, is a strategy) would instead list out skill areas for growth as well as potential opportunities to advance those skills.
Roadmaps: When I started in the industry, the strategies I created used a roadmap format. This was a highly detailed document (usually in Gantt chart form) that listed out all the projects we would work on in a year along with timelines, dependencies, goals, and who would be the primary driver. If we accomplished 70% of what we set out to deliver, we felt pretty good.
Since the popularization of agile and lean practices, most companies have been moving away from detailed roadmaps as they are extremely time consuming to construct, have many assumptions built in, and are inflexible.
OKRs: At Policygenius, most of our strategies use an OKR (objectives and key results) format. This is a popular format, with tons of literature and examples behind it. At its base, it is still a list of moves we are going to make with success criteria, but is less time consuming to create, is more flexible as far as timing, and allows for objective (or initiative) owners to make just in time decisions rather than planning out every detail ahead of time.
Even within the OKR format, there are variations, such as graded key results, which allow for a progression of success, or OCRs (objectives and customer results), which put an extra emphasis on setting goals from a customer’s perspective.
When starting to draft a strategy, I would suggest starting with a vision first and also using a maturity model as an input. The vision will help us define what the ultimate goal is, which helps inspire work and also prioritize what is most important. If it’s a longer term vision (multi-year), then a maturity model helps us find our bearings, highlighting potential next steps and low-hanging fruit on our way towards achieving that vision.
Additional notes on utilizing these tools
All four of these tools can be used together. I wrote about them in a specific order because I believe this is the order that we should use them. They are progressively more complex and time consuming to create and each one also helps inform the next, making it easier to wield. In addition, they are in the order I think we should present them to our teams and stakeholders, because each one helps the audience engage with the next.
My last recommendation is to not create these in a silo. This isn’t saying that we shouldn’t have preconceived opinions about mission and vision — we should. However, I have found that the act of engaging our leadership team or even our whole team in creating or refining these concepts increases their quality, increases the team’s alignment, and fosters a strong sense of ownership.
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