Playing To Win

The Motivation for Strategy

Untangling the roles of purpose, vision, mission, aspirations, and goals in strategy

Roger Martin
Feb 22 · 6 min read
Copyright: Roger L. Martin, 2021

I get many questions about where purpose, vision, mission, and goals fit in the Strategic Choice Cascade, because its five boxes don’t include any of those terms. So, I decided to address that set of related questions in this Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece, my 21st in the series. I will begin with purpose, vision, mission, and winning aspiration and then address the question of goals.

In strategy formulation, it is common to see an organization create statements for each of purpose, vision, and mission, or at least two of the three. While I don’t object to an organization having two or three of these statements, in my decades of work on strategy I honestly have not seen any positive value in having multiple such statements. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any consistent or common definition of the terms. For example, sometimes the vision is subordinate to mission and other times it is the opposite. And when there is an attempt to parse out into three separate statements what the organization is attempting to do, it strikes me as getting close to the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin territory.

I prefer to keep strategy as simple as possible, so I have a single box at the top of the cascade: winning aspiration. I use aspiration because I like the word: “a strong desire to achieve something high or great” according to Merriam Webster, or “steadfast desire or longing for something above one” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. That is the meaning I want: strong desire combined with high goal. But if others want to substitute purpose, vision, or mission for the word aspiration, I am totally fine with it. I just care about the content of that first box on the cascade.

To me, the key is that it should specify that the organization seeks to add value to customers in a sufficiently unique manner that it will do so better than anybody. That is why I like aspirations such as the following:

Starbucks: “Establish Starbucks as the premier purveyor of the finest coffee in the world

Asos: “To become the number 1 fashion destination for 20-somethings globally

Apple: To make the best products on earth, and to leave the world better than we found it

I like PayPal’s old one (To build the Web’s most convenient, secure, cost-effective payment solution) better than its new one (To reimagine money, to democratize financial services, so that managing and moving money is a right for all citizens, not just the affluent). The former seeks to be the best, while the latter seeks to do something interesting.

Motivation is key to an aspiration. To be effective, an aspiration needs to be motivational to employees and customers. It should make employees want to come to work excited by the prospect of achieving the stated aspiration and it should contribute to convincing customers that the company is focused on their welfare. For example, if P&G’s aspiration was only its vision (Be, and be recognized as, the best consumer products and services company in the world), I wouldn’t give it a great grade. But when combined with its vision (We will provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come), it makes a great aspiration. Be the best, on behalf of the world’s consumers, not just one of “be the best” or “improve the lives of the world’s consumers.”

It is a mistake to have any mention of shareholder value in a winning aspiration. Consider this one: FedEx Corporation will produce superior financial returns for its shareowners by providing high value-added logistics, transportation and related business services through focused operating companies. The customer’s only role is as a generator of value for shareholders, which is hardly motivational for them. It would demotivate me as a customer. And it is really hard for me to imagine myself as an employee leaping out of bed in the morning to work toward achieving this aspiration. FedEx is a great company with an underwhelming mission statement.

For me, the other key component of the winning aspiration box is the specification of goals that will help assess progress toward achieving the aspiration. It is very unlikely that an organization will achieve its aspiration unless it can measure progress toward it in some way. An organization needs to know whether it is headed in the right direction and on track to achieve the aspiration so that it knows whether to stay the course or to make a course correction.

If we take the Starbucks statement (Establish Starbucks as the premier purveyor of the finest coffee in the world), we would need to have a definition of “premier” and “finest” to be able to convert the statement into a set of timebound goals against which we could measure progress. Does premier mean biggest, or best customer ratings, or highest sales/sq ft? Does finest mean blind taste test wins, or highest quality inputs, or #1 in third-party rankings? For Asos (To become the number 1 fashion destination for 20-somethings globally), does number 1 fashion destination mean most visited site or most ecommerce transaction volume or most highly ranked by third parties? Even 20-somethings needs a definition.

Only if an organization defines the key terms clearly enough to set measurable, timebound goals will the winning aspiration be effective in guiding the organization forward. If an organization can’t define the terms well enough to set goals, it is clear evidence that it needs to revisit its winning aspiration.

As I have written about previously in The Role of Management Systems in Strategy, one category of features to be included in management systems is non-standard measurement/tracking of information. That is to say, if the other choices of strategy (winning aspiration, where-to-play, how-to-win, capabilities) necessitate an unusual measurement/tracking system, then it is an important choice in management systems to develop such a measurement/tracking system. If it is just standard stuff that is already tracked in the ERM system or as a matter of course, it isn’t a distinctive choice, and you should measure/track like everyone else. But if it is integral to a choice to be different than competitors, then it needs to be incorporated into management systems.

Leading packaging company WestRock’s winning aspiration is to be the premier partner and unrivaled provider of sustainable winning packaging solutions for its customers. In order to judge whether it is doing so, or not, WestRock needed to create adistinctive management system for measuring whether it is helping a given customer accomplish one of the following four value-adding outcomes:lower their total costs, grow their sales, reduce their risk, and/or improve their sustainability.

When it comes to the tangled mess of purpose, vision, mission, and aspirations, keep it simple. You only need one. It doesn’t really matter what you call it but stick to a single one. And make sure that it focuses on winning with customers in a way that is motivational to both employees and customers. If your aspiration does not involve winning, somebody else in your space will have a winning aspiration and they are likely to leave you behind in the dust.

Translate your winning aspiration into measurable, time-bound goals that help you keep on the path to achievement of your aspiration. If it is really hard to come up with goals of this sort, it is likely because your winning aspiration is probably too vague and abstract. It is a signal that it is time to revisit your winning aspiration.

Finally, recognize that some strategies require the building of a new management system to measure progress on the key goals. That is not a bad thing — it is a positive sign of the distinctiveness of your strategy.

[The previous 20 posts in the Playing to Win Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) have been: The Role of Management Systems in Strategy; Is the Opposite of Your Choice Stupid on its Face?; Why I am Skeptical of Low Market Shares; Strategy is what you Do, not what you Say; Strategy as Problem Solving; Strategic Choice Chartering; From Laudable List to How to Really Win; Strategy as a Practice; Strategy & Time; Playing to Win for Social Sector Organizations; Strategy & Design Thinking; Strategy & Integrative Thinking; On the Inseparability of Where-to-Play and How-to-Win; On the Trap of Presiding over Strategy; Is Strategy in B2B Dramatically Different than in B2C?; My Business is Too Fast-Moving for Strategy; Playing to Win and Scenario Planning; Distinguishing How-to-Win from Capabilities in Your Strategy Choice; The Two Rules that Monopolists Ignore at Their Peril; and Strategy vs. Planning: Complements not Substitutes.]

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +724K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store