Sunday, March 18, 2007

Anchoring the Organization in a Set of Governing Ideas

In "The Fifth Discipline" Peter Senge speaks of the importance of anchoring an organization in a set of governing ideas. According to Senge, MISSION is the "Why?" - the organization's answer to the question, "Why do we exist?" VISION is the "What?" - the picture of the future we seek to create. And CORE VALUES is the "How?" - the organization's answer to the question, "How do we want to act consistent with our mission on the path toward our vision?" An organization's values describe how the organization wants life to be on a day-to-day basis, while pursuing the vision.

Clarity about these governing ideas is the foundation for effective strategic planning, and organizational effectiveness in general. Our mission, vision and core values need to be in alignment. At the same time, while the words "mission" and "vision" are often used interchangeably, they are two distinct things. The mission refers to the fundamental purpose of the organization. The vision statement describes the hoped for destination, and therefore reflects the future direction of the organization. We can be completely clear about our purpose, and still be in complete disagreement about our vision for the future.

I regard the strategic vision as the centerpiece of a good strategic plan and organizational effectiveness in general. Without agreement about the "future we seek to create", we run the risk of devising a plan that may look good on paper -- bold and exciting strategic priorities, based on sound financial analysis, with a solid framework for evaluating results -- but a plan that takes us and the community that we are presuming to serve in the wrong direction.

Senge -- and I agree completely -- speaks passionately about the importance of a shared vision. A vision that people are committed to-- they'll do whatever it takes to make the vision a reality. He contrasts this with a vision about which people are apathetic (Neither for nor against vision. No interest. No energy. “Is it five o'clock yet?”)

And if we are to have a shared vision that inspires this kind of commitment, we need to make sure that the process we use to create the vision is one that fully engages board, staff and community stakeholders. The process needs to allow them to connect their personal dreams and their highest aspirations to the work of creating a shared vision for the organization. Visions that are handed down from on high without this kind of meaningful engagement don't inspire people to put forth their best efforts.

In the issues-based approach to strategic planning which I favor, the vision is rooted in the critical strategic issues which board and staff leadership identify in the planning process. In many ways, the vision represents the "big answer" to the "big questions" (issues) that surface in the early stages of our strategic planning.

There are lots of great web-based resources for developing this kind of shared vision. For a look at one approach that I have found useful, go to: And for a sampling of vision statements from a wide range of nonprofits, go to:

For some of the most inspired thinking about vision, go to the source: “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge. "Vision" is one of the five disciplines of the learning organization as Senge conceives it. Read Chapter 10 "Shared Vision". In fact, while you're at it, read the book! It’s recently revised with lots of new material and will continue to be an influential work. And visit for other Fifth Discipline resources.