The Concepts of Vision & Mission Revisited

by JJ Murphy

Learn how an organisation should state its mission with a new perspective on its vision. Discover how new business strategies affect the values and focus of today's organisation.

"After many years of research, a plethora of books and articles on the subject, and nearly a decade of being the genesis of most strategy sessions with companies, we still find that the concepts of Vision, Purpose and Mission are open to a wide variety of interpretations" (Murphy,1997 ).This debate has been further complicated by best selling authors, Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad, in their Harvard Business Review article "Strategic Intent".

An inspection of recent research reports and textbooks on Strategy, Vision and Mission, such as, Thompson and Strickland, 1997, Snyder et al., 1994, Campbell et al., 1990, Quigley, 1993, SANNO Management Development Research Centre, 1993, to name a few, would seem to substantiate the above statement by Murphy.

The Concepts of Purpose and Vision


  • Why does the company exist?
  • Who should benefit most from all the effort that is put into the company?
  • Why should a manager or an employee do more than the minimum required?
  • Who owns the company?

These questions are deeply philosophical and spiritual, sometimes evoking long and acrimonious debate.

The debate appears to resolve itself into three broad categories that vary from the materialistic and selfish at one end of the spectrum to the more altruistic at the other.

Firstly, there are those who claim that the company exists for the benefit of the owner or shareholders. "Maximisation of shareholders' value" is a phrase often quoted by managers and academics that hold this viewpoint. (See Rappaport, 1986 )

Most managers and academics, however, have rejected this single - minded approach. They do not believe that the company's only purpose is to create wealth for the owners or shareholders. They acknowledge the claims of other stakeholders such as customers, employees, suppliers and the community. The second view of the company's purpose, therefore, is that it exists to satisfy in more than a material sense all its stakeholders. (Stakeholder theory: Pearce and Robinson, 1991)

The third viewpoint aims at identifying a purpose that is greater than the combined needs of the stakeholders, and something to which all the stakeholders can feel proud to contribute. They aim towards a higher ideal. At The Body Shop, a retailer of cosmetics, the managers promote "products that do not hurt the environment". Matsushita maintain they only manufacture products that will enhance the quality of life of the Japanese people. It is clear that, in these companies, each stakeholder can feel that the company supports some goal at a level higher than the monetary, a goal which reaches out to a wider audience, and even to society as a whole.


Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, authors of "Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge", identify Vision as a concept central to their theory of leadership. "To choose a direction, a leader must first develop a mental image of a possible and desirable future state of the organisation. This image, which we call vision, may be as vague as a dream or as precise as a goal statement.

The critical point is that Vision articulates a credible, realistic attractive future for the organisation". (Own emphasis)

Robert H. Miles, in an article entitled "Corporate Transformation", states that all successful transformations are Vision led. He defines Vision in the following way: "It requires projection into a dimly outlined future. It requires the creation of goals that stretch the organisation beyond its current comprehension and capabilities". (Own emphasis)

Stephen R. Covey stresses the symbiotic relationship between Vision and Values in an article called Ethical Vertigo published in Executive Excellence, 1997.

The Book of Proverbs warns us: "Where there is no Vision, people will perish", while Martin Luther King demonstrated the power of Vision when he immortalised his Vision with the words, "I have a dream", and unleashed forces that changed a nation.

Quigley (1994) defines corporate values as "the rules or guidelines by which a corporation exhorts its members to behaviour consistent with its order, security, and growth ... Values and beliefs are the most fundamental of the three elements of Vision". (Own emphasis)

It is true to say that most Vision statements express an element of ambition. Whether it is to be "bigger than", to "go from number two to number one", or even "to be the best", an element of achievement is always present. Komatsu set out to "encircle" Caterpillar (David vs Goliath): Canon sought to "Beat Xerox": Panasonic has "the quest for zero defect", while Cray Computers "manufactures the best computers in the world".

It is obvious from the discussion so far that a Vision is more than unfettered ambition or being future oriented. It incorporates cultures, beliefs, value systems and a myriad of force fields. To better clarify our thoughts on this, we must digress temporarily into the field of neuroscience.

The following is a direct quote from Zohar (1997) "Today neuroscience teaches that from the moment of conception we are born with sufficient neural connections to regulate our breathing, our body temperature and the beating of our heart, but nearly everything else is pure potentiality. What diet we will be fed, what climactic conditions and germs we will encounter, what language we will be exposed to - all these and much more are uncertain at the moment of birth". So, the infant brain is genetically hard wired and activated. The interaction between the infant and the environment {stimuli} enables the brain to adapt to whatever physical and cultural conditions it finds. It allows the brain to wire itself, as it evolves, in accordance with its experience". In effect, the human operating system is operational, but no application programmes have been installed yet.

"Experiments on the language learning abilities of human infants, based on the recorded sounds that infants make in the first months after birth, reveal that every human infant, regardless of where on this planet it is born, utters the approximately eight hundred sound patterns found in the totality of all human languages. The infant's brain has the capacity to range freely across the spectrum of all the possible linguistic sounds. Yet, within the first year of its life, the infant singles out those sound patterns relevant to the language of its own culture. It lays down neural pathways for the recognition and use of those sounds - it wires its brain according to its environment - and loses the ability to recognise and use those sounds not used by the surrounding culture. The infant constructs its world at a wonderfully rapid rate. The infant must grow new neural connections in its brain if it is to have a world.

In Western cultures, most young people of 16 or 18 years, or, in their early twenties if they continued with higher education, have grown enough neural connections to 'coast' for the rest of their lives. In short, they have wired in their basic life's paradigm." Zohar (1997).

If we hypothesise that the new - born organisation can be equated with an infant (the analogy between biological systems, quantum physics and business systems have received increasing attention in recent years - for example, in "Leadership and the New Science" by Margaret Wheatly, in "Rewiring the Corporate Brain" by Danah Zohar and in "The Quark and the Jaguar" by Murray Gell - Mann), then it is reasonable to apply the conclusions drawn above with regard to the hard and soft wiring of the infant brain, to a business organisation. It is probable that the new - born organisation similarly constructs its world at a very rapid rate in terms of the environment in which it is enmeshed. However, the institutionalisation of the paradigm must, of necessity, go through the same growth cycle, i.e., infancy, childhood, puberty, adolescence, and maturity. The organisational life cycle can, of course, be equated with this. We postulate, from this, that the paradigm of the organisation will be embedded by the end of the embryonic or early growth phase of the organisation.

In practical terms, this means that the newly formed business will rapidly create and construct a language, a culture, and a belief and value system that are a derivative of the environment.

  1. as defined by the leader or founder,
  2. the social and ethical values of the society (the business environment) and
  3. any other force fields that interface or interact with the infant organisation.


The concept paradigm entered into the previous discussion. It is a fact that although many business people are familiar with the word, few truly understand it.

When we speak of our paradigm we use it in the original sense given it by American philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". It means the whole conceptual framework embracing our most deeply held, unconscious assumptions and values. It encompasses the things we take for granted in any situation. It therefore determines our expectations, frames the questions we ask, and structures the way we do things.

Thomas Kuhn points out that the paradigm becomes so embedded that new ideas that do not fit the paradigm, are not welcome, and are treated as anomalies. It is only as the anomalies, the things that will not fit the old paradigm, mount up to cause major disruption, that changes can occur and a paradigm shift take place. This is sometimes referred to as the "paradigm box". We need our paradigms to make sense of the world: yet, because of these we become trapped or constrained. Kuhn (1970)

The next question to ask is: "Is there any difference between the concepts of vision and paradigm?" The only difference would seem to be a semantic one, as:

  1. both Vision and Paradigm are constraints on the way we do things:
  2. both have been "installed" over the early phases of the organisation's life cycle:
  3. both are combinations of potentialities and such entities as values, ethics, social norms ... etc.:
  4. both can be, but are not easily, changed, and normally only after major disruption:
  5. both are the ultimate function in the measure of acceptable strategies.

There are two major conclusions to be drawn from the above. 1)Paradigm and Vision can be seen as two sides of the same coin and 2)it is obvious, that if there is a dysfunction between the strategy and the vision/paradigm then one or the other , or both, must change.

It would be prudent at this stage to refer to the concept "Strategic Intent" coined by Hamel and Prahalad. On the one hand, strategic intent envisions a desired leadership position and establishes the criteria the organisation will use to chart its progress, however, at the same time, according to these authors, strategic intent is more than unfettered ambition. The concept also encompasses focussing the organisation's attention on the essence of winning: motivating people by communicating the value of the target: sustaining enthusiasm and using intent consistently to guide resource allocation.

Campbell et al. (1990) state that strategic intent is a concept that draws from both vision and mission, but it is closer in concept to the traditional definition of mission. The major conclusion of Campbell et al. is that strategic intent is a "less powerful concept". Their major criticism is that the concept fails to include values and behaviour standards.

A more serious problem, from our point of view, is embedded in the phrase "strategic intent". Strategic intent, in essence, means "the intent of the strategy", that is, when we have formulated strategies we next ascertain the direction and intent of such strategies. This is contrary to the viewpoint of most academics and managers. You have to know where you want to go before you can decide how to get there!

Further insight into the concept of Vision may be gained if we look at some real life case studies.

Case Histories: Wal - Mart, Hewlett Packard, Matsushita Appliances and the Body Shop.

In the 1950's, Sam Walton worked, inter alia, in the retail trade for the Chicago - based Ben Franklin Stores. It was during this period that he formulated his vision for a discount store. It was a deceptively simple idea: a discount store with wholesale margins on every product, a store that simultaneously offered easy shopping and friendly service. The linchpin, or critical success factor, was that these stores would be situated in small towns. Sam Walton believed that "there was a lot more business in those towns than people ever thought". (Snyder et al. 1994)

At the heart of Walton's vision for Wal - Mart were his rock - solid personal values of humility, honesty, frugality and trust. Despite his $9 billion family fortune, Sam held onto his Ford truck, casual clothes, modest ranch style house and simple no frills headquarters in out of the way Bentonville.

Walton's personal values were translated into three key business principles: provide the customer with value and service in a clean and friendly shopping environment: create a partnership with associates: and maintain commitment to the community.

The critical and irreplaceable ingredient of Wal - Mart's success were the strengths and virtues of Sam Walton himself - his overriding vision and unwavering values, his courage to take action, and his uncanny ability to motivate and inspire his "associates".

Walton was more than a great leader, he was an astute strategist. He searched with painstaking care for every individual who made up his management team. He sought individuals who believed in the discount concept and were dedicated to working long hours to see the vision become a reality. He created an organisation that thrived on innovation and in an atmosphere where people believed in themselves. He embraced technology as a change agent for innovation and remaining competitive.

The results speak for themselves. Wal - Mart has succeeded in satisfying not only its customers, but its employees, suppliers, investors, and host communities. Wal - Mart outshines the rest of the industry in growth, sales, earnings, margins, and employee and floor productivity.

The paradigm that Sam Walton established has been a winner. The question that remains is, will this paradigm still hold in our rapidly changing world? Or will there come a time when even Wal - Mart will need to break out of its paradigm box?

Bill Hewlett, Konosuke Matsushita and Anita Rodick, all tell the same story. "We did what we thought was right and what came naturally to us. We believe strongly in some key principles and we have worked hard to stamp these on the company. We believe the principles we have been following are the most important part of our business".

Hewlett Packard, Matsushita Appliances and The Body Shop were young organisations with no entrenched views and no established culture. The neural connections they made depended on the environment as embodied in the founders, extended stakeholders, and the influence of the political, demographic, economic, social and technological forces active at birth. The paradigm was being constructed, but it would take years for it to solidify into the so - called "paradigm box".

Conclusions as related to Purpose, Vision and Paradigm.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from the above discussion. The most important is that these apparently different concepts are essentially the same, and the differences between them that do exist are at the periphery and are not significant enough to warrant being treated differently. Purpose, Vision and Paradigm are so much the same that the many arguments to differentiate between them become semantic exercises and academic jargon. Strategic Intent would seem to fall into this category and might be called an exercise in repackaging.

It is possible to postulate that the concept of Vision goes beyond profits and stakeholders, although these are an inherent part of it. Vision also addresses the community and in some instances even the society as a whole (The Body Shop, Wal - Mart).

Ambition and the future are essential elements of any Vision. Whether this ambition should be fettered or unlimited is open to debate. Hamel and Prahalad would have it unfettered, whilst Campbell states that it should be a stretch, but achievable.

The case studies reveal that Vision encapsulates culture and values and beliefs. Just as the atom contains enormous energy which, when unleashed, can be beneficial or destructive, so the paradigm box contains enormous latent power or energy which, if unleashed, can be a powerful force for achievement or disruption.

We know and understand why the development and institution of the Vision takes time. There are no short cuts. More importantly, because it takes so much time to create the paradigm box, the act of breaking out of it requires tremendous energy and effort. This has serious implications for change programmes.

Finally, the law of causality insists that if we are to understand the present paradigm box or Vision, we need to return to the genesis of the company and reconstruct the initial conditions. Any changes from those initial conditions must be a result of the dynamics of the various force fields and their interaction. We will revisit this important conclusion when we look at how to change the Vision of a company.

Creating and Institutionalising the Vision

The importance of the creation of a Vision is abundantly clear from the discussion thus far. What we need to discuss at this point is - - how? How do we establish a Vision for a company?

There are two important aspects to this problem:

  1. establishing a Vision for a newly formed company: and
  2. changing the Vision of an old, established company.

Creating a Vision for a newly formed company

As indicated, the neural connections that set up the vision/ paradigm of the newly created company takes place in the formative or embryonic and early growth phase of the company. We must ensure that the force fields which interact with our newly established company are the correct ones. The leader plays the dominant role in this regard. Witness the way in which Henry Ford's paradigm for decades was the paradigm of the Ford Motor Company, ditto for Sam Walton (Wal Mart), Watson (IBM), Ray Crock (MacDonald's), Anita Rodick of The Body Shop ... etc.

In these early stages, the vision is installed both by design and by adaptation. It is the leader who installs a vision by design, when the neural pathways or architecture are constructed. The adaptation occurs when the external fields exert pressure on the organisation to adapt and thus influence the vision/ paradigm, and this will hold as long as the paradigm accommodates the changes taking place within the force fields that envelop the organisation.

Changing the Vision: Paradigm of an established company

How does one change the Vision/ Paradigm of a well established company that has been around for quite some time? We have noted that the ability to change is very much restricted by the "paradigm box".

In the established organisation, the founder approach is obviously not possible. Management has to work within the constraints of the existing paradigm and bring about change in an orderly manner.

Upon inspection, the literature seems to favour two possible approaches. The first is the Intellectual Process. This approach brings top management together, who use techniques such as brainstorming, to formulate a new vision, which they then communicate throughout the organisation. The second method is the Focussed Approach. It is a more holistic approach, insofar as due recognition is given to all the possible relationships that exist and interact with one another. For the purposes of this paper, we will give no further attention to the Intellectual Process. Most writing on the subject of vision favours this approach and so it is well described in the literature.

The Focussed Approach recognises the existence of a whole range of neural networks. This recognition of the principles that make the founder approach so successful, means that leaders who turn to the Focussed Approach can likewise "found" a new vision, even if it involves radical change.

The starting point of the Focussed Approach is to establish the initial conditions. Who was the founder of the organisation? What values, beliefs and ethics did that person hold especially important? What was the environment like? What were the driving forces? Who were the stakeholders? What was happening in the social, political, economic and technological environment?

The next step is to do the same analysis for the conditions of the present in order to determine what dynamics have been active and whether the original paradigm has shifted.

With this information as backdrop, we are ready to initiate the necessary change programme. Although we show the change programme as a process, it must be remembered that the steps shown are not necessarily sequential and, in all probability, will be iterative.

  • Select an initial strategic focus point. Something that is very necessary to change in terms of the survival of the organisation. At South African Airways, the initial focus will have to be to get the aircraft off on time, to improve the service delivered by cabin crew and frontline staff, and to ensure that SAA remain competitive. At the finance division of a major South African bank, the focus was to consolidate fourteen general ledgers into one, to supply accurate and timeous financial information to the operating divisions and the Reserve Bank, and to supply the divisions with financial intelligence to improve their decision making ability. In both these cases, no formal Vision statement should be, or was drafted in the initial stages of the realignment of the corporate direction. When selecting a strategic focus point the following aspects should be borne in mind: 1) the focus point must be at the core of both the future strategy and the future value system: 2) it should be easy to translate into standards of behaviour: 3) it should have strong value associations that are attractive to large sections of management and staff: and 4) it should be non - controversial and be able to elicit a wide base of support.
  • Included in most company Vision statements is some form of slogan, for example,"The quest for Zero defect". This slogan, although it might not appear so at first glance, is crucial to the establishment of the new Vision. The word "slogan" originates from the Gaelic, "army shout", or Scottish Highland war - cry: so the slogan literally becomes the rallying cry of the organisation. The redirection or new focus the company is erking upon, {the creation of new neural connections}, must be brought to the attention of the stakeholders continuously, until the paradigm shift that needs to take place is completed and institutionalised within the company. This means that the slogan becomes an instrument not only of change, but also of indoctrination. At British Airways the challenge of improving frontline service was linked to the slogan "Putting People First". All communications, training ... etc., conveyed the idea (the value set) that people are important. This gave a rationale for the changes in the behaviour that were demanded, and for some they became an inspiration. The new Vision grew because the new behaviour standards were underpinned by organisational values that were attractive to the staff. (Campbell et. al., 1990) Putting people first is a slogan acceptable not only to the customer, but also to employees. Note that, in this process, the slogan comes before the formalisation of the Vision per se.
  • Have an action orientation. This approach is, by definition, action orientated. This is in distinct contrast to the intellectual process, which begins with an intellectual exercise, then the downward communication of the results until the majority have bought in, followed by the operationalisation of these ideas in terms of the actions to be taken. With the "Focus" Approach, management get on with the job of making the new "Focus" work. In practice, they get the planes off the ground on schedule (SAA), they reengineer the general ledgers so that there is only one (Bank), they supply the necessary training to carry out the reengineering ... etc. The message to all stakeholders is unambiguous: problems that affect customers must be resolved.
  • Communications must be "Focus" oriented. The reasons for changes to be made at the operational level must be explained, as opposed to exhorting people to change, or worse, explaining some intellectual exercise that most find difficult to comprehend. In a sense this continuous focus oriented communication can be equated to the concept of evangelism and indoctrinisation. Communicating the tangible changes that are being made in order to achieve certain operational goals is the transparent end of the change program. The changes that are taking place in the culture, values, ethical norms and social architecture are in most cases only apparent to a few at the time of the change. Repetitiveness and focussed communication are some of the underlying pillars of success.
  • Concentrate on behaviour. An acceptance of Vision comes from the link between behaviour, organisation values and personal values. Michael Beer states: "Those who implement successful transformations, focus on behaviour rather than simply talk about it" (p.34). "Only a change in the context - structure, system, staffing patterns and management process - in which employees function can stimulate and sustain new management approaches" (p.35). An often underrated mechanism to change the culture is to change the people.( See also Corporate Recovery, Slatter, 1984) Sometimes the crisis at hand mitigates against the normal time frame of change, or it could be that the paradigm is so entrenched in the old staff , that radical surgery is required. (Harold Leavitt - "Corporate Pathfinders").
  • Expect it to take time. The time it takes to establish the neural connections or paradigm box and to institutionalise the initial Vision stretches well into the early growth phase of the corporate life cycle. It stands to reason that any change programme will similarly take time. The time it takes will be dependent upon the amount of change that has to take place. If it is major, as in a crisis situation, it is conceivable that the duration will be prolonged.
  • Build and sustain trust. Building trust, says Michael Beer, is a key element in the mobilisation of energy for change. The concept of trust must be seen in its wider context. Transparency, open communications, and sharing information are all part of the trust building process. However, let us reiterate an earlier comment. The focal point of everything being implemented in the organisation must be the "focus" programme. Let us not get carried away in the early stages with nice sounding rhetoric and political statements.
  • Create the Vision Statement. At some stage, the Vision statement can be formalised and hung on the wall, included in the company's financial statements and reiterated in the chairman's report. The change agent will know when the company has travelled sufficiently far down the road of change: when the new paradigm is sufficiently on track not to jump off the rails: when it has become "the way we do things here": when the conversion to the new religion has been accomplished.

The Concept of Mission

The literature identifies three basic schools of thought that apply to the concept of Mission. Broadly speaking, one school of thought describes mission in terms of business strategy. The second school describes it in terms of philosophy, values and ethics. The third school, the military, look at mission as the ultimate function of operational effectiveness.

The Strategic View

The genesis of the strategic approach was an article by Theodore Levit, "Marketing Myopia", which appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 1960. This was later expanded upon by Abel and Hammond in their book "Strategic Market Planning" (1979). According to this approach, a Mission is defined in terms of the product or service, the clients to be served and the technology used to deliver the product or service to the customer. To do it this way, they argue, avoids the problem of being too vague or generalised: "being in the transport business" is the oft - quoted example. When the Mission is anchored to products and services, clients or customers, and to delivery technology, it gives, at the same time, a clear statement of strategic direction. The interface between strategy and Mission is very concrete.

Philosophical and Ethical View

By contrast, the philosophical, social values and ethical view argues that Mission is the cultural "glue" that enables an organisation to function as a collective unity. This cultural "glue" consists of strong norms and values that influence the way people behave, how they work together and how they pursue the goals of the organisation. This approach sees Mission as encapsulating some of the emotional aspects of the organisation. We see that, in this respect, this approach encompasses many of the core concepts of Vision as we have discussed it above.

Military Perspective

Military historians such as Little Hart, Von Clausewitz and many others, have, after studying many "wars", deduced what is commonly referred to as the "ten principles of war". The first and major principle is "the selection and maintenance of the aim". In order to achieve the aim it is essential that strategies be formulated. The execution and achievement of these strategies are, in turn, dependent on the successful completion of one or more missions. Tactical adaptations to the execution parameters of these missions will in most cases be a distinct possibility.

It will be obvious from the above that "aim" is synonymous with Vision, and that the military consider Mission as an operational subset of Vision. It is the "do", or objective, function. The military view is closely allied to the Able and Hammond approach discussed above. The Able and Hammond approach also incorporates a "do" function, in that it defines products and services, customers and technology in a three - dimensional, isometric spatial diagram. This spatial diagram can be related directly to the strategy of the organisation.

Conclusion as related to Mission

The military and strategic approaches have much in common. In both, the ultimate function of the Mission is the achievement of an objective or goal which contributes directly to successful strategy implementation. By definition, they are both very much functional in content and are therefore referred to as functional strategies.

The ethical or philosophical approach, as reviewed above has three distinct drawbacks.

  1. It contains many of the elements of the Vision which could be very confusing
  2. it lacks an action orientation and
  3. the interface with the strategy of the organisation is not clear. From our perspective it(ethical and philosophical approach) does not add value or any further insight to the academic discussion on Mission and if anything, would confuse rather than clarify the situation.


In this paper we dissected the concepts Purpose, Vision, Paradigm and Mission. Although these have been discussed in academic as well as management circles for many years, we still find a wide variety of opinions and departure points both in content and process.

It is our contention that the concepts Purpose, Vision and paradigm are very similar at the core. The differences that exist are at the periphery and do not warrant the distinction between the concepts that are being placed on it at the moment.

Mission however does warrant distinction. It is very much a do function and does not include all the other attributes of values, ethics, beliefs etc.(Some authors however do include these attributes). There is a very definite action orientation in a mission statement and it should not, to our way of thinking, be contaminated by moral, social or other force fields which are best suited to the Vision statement.

Apart from the discussion on the above, we have also attempted to show how organisations can change their Vision by means of a structured but flexible approach. Breaking out of an existing paradigm box requires careful execution. Forces will be unleashed that can be very destructive if left undirected, if we are able to control the energy release we can ensure constructive application of this energy.

To this end issues such as strategic thrust areas, repetitive communication, behavioural norms, non controversial programs, building of trust and messianic leadership need to be addressed.

Finally, creating a new Vision for a company is not something that can be undertaken lightly, nor is it something that can be achieved at a two day seminar. It needs strategic thinking, the creation of something that everybody can buy into, it needs time but most of all it needs passion!

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