What’s The Point Of You? – Clarifying Your Vision and Mission

16th December, 2021

Visioning isn’t something that an elite few in an institution do…

Introduction

Too many vision and mission statements end up as a word salad of phrases that organisations think their funders, or other stakeholders want to hear. The risk is a sameness in statements across heritage organisations that makes it harder for them to stand out, or for readers to identify what makes them unique and worthwhile.

Many organisations also use vision and mission interchangeably, rather than seeing each as having a distinct role: the vision as a one or two sentence distillation of your purpose in the world, the mission something which flows from that, outlining what this means in practice. Missions shift more frequently, as they are a living plan, more likely to be rewritten in line with what is happening in the outside world.

These two blogs describe how to instead write a meaningful vision and mission statement that you will continue to refer to and revisit as the guiding principle for your work.

About this material

These two related blogs first look at the theory of vision and mission writing – and then a case study of the practical work of Barnsley Museums in creating a vision and mission that underpinned a new civic museum – and served it well in navigating the pandemic. Organised by Creative United for the Rebuilding Heritage programme, you can watch the whole webinar here.

Use real words, that you really mean

Inclusive’, ‘accessible’ and ‘participate’ are among the words that get overused in modern organisational statements. They are all admirable aspirations in themselves – and an organisation committed to putting time and effort into – for instance – prioritising accessibility as an over-arching aim, might usefully use ‘accessible’. But too many organisations deploy these words to convey ‘we are nice’, but without much of a plan to live up to them.

The result is dozens of heritage organisations whose visions sound interchangeable, don’t pin down what gives an organisation its fire and purpose – and risk sounding clunky, stale, dry, pointless and generic.

By contrast, a good vision statement should be change-centric, instantly understandable and relatable. ‘Taking off the tie’ of trying to sound corporate and avoiding putting in buzzwords for their own sake, is the first step in creating something more honest, and more useful.

Writing a Vision and Mission – a Practical Guide

Avoid the words that are common in our gambits. Take the tie off. In plain English, what on earth are we doing?”

What are the processes and habits you need to follow to create a readable and distinctive vision and mission for your organisation? What structures can you build into your working week to make sure your purpose is addressed as you rush around delivering activity?

About this blog

Drawn from a talk first given by James West, a business advisor who also runs a marketing agency, in conversation with Carmel King, this piece aims to give you the practical nuts and bolts of creating a more considered approach. Organised by Creative United for the Rebuilding Heritage programme, you can watch the whole webinar here, which also includes a talk about vision and mission work at Barnsley Museums.

Write your vision for your organisation – not for someone else

Many vision and mission statements get written because organisations think they are obliged to produce one – either because funders need to see it, or it looks good in an annual report.

This is a potentially disastrous starting point, missing the chance to create clarity of purpose, and the chance to outline your proposition for change and how you get there.

The first rule of producing a vision and mission is to write it for yourself, not someone else.

Additional Resource

There is more on thinking through good and bad vision statement here:

https://getlucidity.com/strategy-resources/good-bad-vision-statements/

It comments ‘bad vision statements are unbelievable. Good vision statements are inspiring and emotive’. It also talks more about length: the average for vision statements is 17 words – the longest the authors found was 100 words – the shortest was two.

'Man Writing a Letter' by Gabriël Metsu, National Gallery of Ireland via Wikimedia Commons

Getting Started – Start with Your ‘Why’, Not Your ‘What’

The first question you should ask yourself is why you exist. You might start framing this with some ‘blank canvas’ questions:

If you didn’t exist, what holes would you leave in people’s lives? This has to be more than activities – there are plenty of other places people could go for a day out, for instance. If it’s more fundamental than that, if it’s even life-changing, then that is likely to be central to your vision.

From there, ask what makes you different from other organisations. To take an example from the digital world: Apple’s ‘what’ is that it is a tech company that produces phones. But its why – and the reason for a good slice of the brand loyalty of its customers – is arguably that it is committed to disrupting the tech market and innovating.

Remember that ‘what’ you do is a second step, not the first.

Additional Resource

A 20 minute TED talk by Simon Sinek “How to discover your ‘why’ in difficult times” casts some more light on this.

Rebuilding Heritage also ran a webinar on how to work out and describe your ‘why’ – ‘What’s the Point of You? Communicating who you are and what you do’

Looking at Your Organisation with Fresh Eyes

Remember, the wider world isn’t going to see the false starts, wild ideas and dead ends as you think around your visioning process. So be bold, and try to shake off the patterns of thought that you may feel are required of you at work.

Creative approaches will help. You can use words for some of your thinking, but you can also draw pictures, or try mood boards and mind maps.

Change your environment: If you are mulling over the issues in private after a vision meeting, try going for a walk instead of staring at a computer screen – or finding other ways to get out of your usual spaces.

Change your timescale: Ask big questions such as ‘where will we be in 30 years’ – even though you’re relatively unlikely to work that out accurately, it gives you a bigger canvas to think on.

Keep digging

If the words that turn up in your initial attempt at writing a vision are generic ones, over-used in our sector, keep asking ‘what do we mean by that?’. The process of unpeeling and repackaging these phrases can be the route to what you really mean – and towards greater simplicity.

Get wider information to feed into the process

Asking other organisations what they think of you can be illuminating. However, when you talk to other people, soak up what they say, but don’t be led by it. Much of their advice is likely to be generic, and they won’t necessarily have the answer that you need. But the very process of chatting may unlock the right insights.

Consult widely – but be prepared to lead

Very often, the more people you have in a visioning session, the better. However, that consultation shouldn’t be a way of all the colours going into the pot, and ending up with a shade of grey, appeasing all points of view. Leadership is necessary to choose a decisive path, and keep the vibrancy.

Have you got your vision right?

There are various practical ways you can test whether your vision works:

If you say it out loud, does it sound normal?

Read out your vision to other people, then ask them to repeat it back to you in their own words. If they are accurately conveying your values, then you know that your vision is resonating.

Additional Resource

Path mapping tools to get you to the outcomes you want

Your vision and mission will be agents to push your organisation along with a clear purpose, through a process that will inevitably involve change. This resource digs into that process more deeply:

Theory of Change matrix and template

However, all of these options should be regarded as a recipe book – first find one that suits your style reasonably well – then adapt the recipes to your own situation. Through the piloting process, you will see what unlocks answers in your own situation.

Your vision in practice

Once your vision is in place, how do you start to use it to shape your work? You may want to begin by shaking things up by discussing what you should start or stop doing, and then follow that up with some pilot projects. These allow you to check that you are on the right track before going all in with a new approach.

Piloting (and some positives from the pandemic)

Heritage organisations can be relatively risk averse, but many were compelled by the pandemic to try new things they had not previously got around to, or dared to try -approaches that looked too risky, or even outlandish, compared to the norms of the sector. Although a time of huge anxiety, the pandemic liberated some organisations to experiment and find new audiences. Its lasting message is that you don’t have to be completely prepared, in order to test something out.

Above all, don’t be reluctant to tell people that you are trying out a pilot scheme. Using the word ‘try’ creates a willingness to engage.

Some useful rules for piloting:

Never try anything without knowing what you want to test.

Know your target audience – you might try out an idea on a small cohort initially, rather than everyone who visits your venue.

Be open, not shy about your new experiments, and create a buzz. People like to know you’re evolving.

Measure and review. Remember not to steer people too much, so they say what you want to hear out of politeness – open and honest feedback is what you are seeking. Remember too that a freeness of format is more enlightening – in general, a chat is better than a tick sheet.

Once you’ve run a pilot, do it again. Make an element of experiment part of your culture.

No pilot is 100% successful the first time around – but through tweaking, tinkering and re-trying, you will improve. Using this method, fear is replaced by the expectation of an outcome, with failure being fine as one potential result.

Shaking things up and staying relevant

Armed with an honest, well-thought through vision and some new real world pilot experiments, you are in a strong position to steer your organisation with confidence. No vision is ever complete, but it gives a basis to keep asking yourself:

What should we stop doing?

What should we start doing?

What are we doing that we want to do more of?

This will make you resilient to the changes around you and give you confidence to deal with whatever circumstances bring. In a related piece, we can see how building a strong vision and mission was critical for the team creating a new civic museum from scratch in Barnsley.

This article was written by Kate Smith of Goosegrass Culture.

Adapted from content delivered in partnership with:

More Resources

Sign up to our mailing list

If you would like to receive updates on the Rebuilding Heritage programme, please sign up for our mailing list