Eleven pitfalls of mission, vision & values (and how to avoid them)

Article Chris Erickson 12m read

Mission, vision, values—you know the drill. These foundational elements are supposed to define why you exist, how you behave, and what you’ll accomplish. These concepts are so fundamental they’re practically business 101. It should be an easy A, yet failing the course is easy. 

Why do these manifestations so often fall flat? Why do they work sometimes and not others? How do you make them really work for you? Let’s look at the mission statement misfires we’ve seen most often and how you can avoid making the same mistakes.

Language issues can make directional strategy ineffective.

Lengthy, ambiguous language

Mission statements that take up a paragraph, or even a long sentence, are too long. When your mission statement is verbose, it opens itself up to misinterpretation. Extended mission statements let people cherry-pick what they like and disregard what they don’t. The value of brevity is specificity and precise articulation.

If it’s too long, you’ve robbed yourself of the value that grinding through the process to arrive at something genuine, illuminating, and actionable can bring. Your team must work to arrive at a simple, actionable phrase that serves your business and its customers. 

Remedy: keep it short

We distill missions down to five words—six or seven, max. Capturing your purpose in so few words is challenging but worth the effort. We’ve encountered many skeptics who’ve argued for extended missions, but we can assure you that it’s possible to make it short and correct. Crisp, accurate statements are easy to remember and hard to misinterpret.

Example: eyebobs

When we started working with eyebobs, they had a several-sentence mission statement that hit on several points. The meaning and tone were both forgettable. As part of their directional strategy, we helped them articulate the most critical point: we exist to express. It perfectly captures their purpose and daily practice and is clear enough to guide long-range goals and day-to-day decisions. We paired it with an expressive manifesto that delivers a longer, emotional rally cry.

External-facing marketing jargon

Your mission statement, values, and vision should be strictly meant for your internal team. Still, many companies are tempted to view these as external-facing messages meant to signal who you are to the world. This is a huge mistake. Your team and your customers are entirely different audiences. 

Putting so much time and attention into language that might never see the light of day can be a real hangup for some companies. But consider it liberating. This is about putting the absolute truths of your company ahead of any other kind of external positioning or differentiation. 

Remedy: focus on your internal audience

It’s hard, but don’t even think about your customers or what you think they might want when defining your mission, vision, and values. Focus on the roots and realities of your business. That doesn’t mean you have to hide these things from the outside world, but it does mean they shouldn’t be developed for them. At Parliament, our mission is “Find the truth and make it rad.” We’re fine if you happen to know that, but it’s meant to guide our decisions, not serve as a tagline.

Example: audience confusion

We worked with a brewery that conflated its internal and external messaging. The tools they should have used to define their culture and clarify their vision sounded like sales pitches about how great their beer was. Their team knew it was—they didn’t need to be sold. What they needed was truth and clarity. We helped their leadership team deliver precisely that.

Incomplete or rushed

Perhaps your guiding principles were developed quickly. Somebody, at some point, made some progress and called it good enough. 

And now you’re surprised or disappointed that it’s not inspiring and guiding your organization. This is the holy scripture of your organization. It deserves your utmost care, attention, and commitment to being a complete and accurate foundation.

Remedy: git ’er done

Carve out the time to make it happen and ensure the ownership, founder, or CEO is deeply involved. Hiring a consultant, like Parliament, can help provide structure and accountability as well. Things tend to get done when it costs the organization cold, hard cash.

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Example: Wyld

Leaders in the cannabis space have been racing to adapt to (and define) a wild-west-like industry. In rapidly expanding markets and start-up environments, it’s common to treat everything—even brand foundations—as experiments and MVPs. That works until it doesn’t. When Wyld reached that point, we worked with them to define brand platforms for Wyld itself and its parent company. Then we extended them through their brand standards. This helped an already fantastic brand shore up the pieces that had fallen behind while they raced to the top.

Concepts that are table stakes

Avoid leaning into words like “honesty,” “integrity,” and “commitment” or generic ideas like “we exist to make the world a better place.” As human beings, we agree that those should already be understood as part of every company’s daily practice. But they don’t shed light on your more profound sense of mission, purpose, or culture. High-ending on universal aspirations is a good way of communicating very little.

Remedy: do your own thing

Ask yourself whether any part of your mission, vision, or values is true about most companies. If the answer is yes, challenge yourself to dig deeper. Respect is important, but that’s true in almost every business, so making it a value communicates nothing more than baseline expectations. Define your purpose, core behaviors, and objectives in terms so precise that they are 100% true for your business but not necessarily true for others.

Setting up Rainier’s brand foundation for the next 100 years. Read the case study

Example: Rainier Beer

We teamed up with Rainier Beer, a legendary PNW brand, to ensure they don’t go the way of countless once-great brands. Consider the carefully selected words we used to guide its brand: mythic, outdoorsy, and irreverent. These words create the Rainier world. They aren’t generic, and most organizations aren’t any of them. They are perfectly specific, making them not only meaningful but truly useable.

Directional strategy needs the right perspective to be actionable.

Wrong perspective or point of view

This is often the case when someone other than the owner, founder, or CEO is tasked with driving any part of a directional strategy forward. That person will do their best, but over time there will be a delta between what they defined and how the company is actually run. That disconnect will create schisms in the organization.

Remedy: ensure CEO involvement & buy-in

The owner or founder/CEO must be deeply involved with mission/value definition to achieve this. Without their involvement, it’ll go sideways—even if you don’t know it immediately. That’s because purpose- and culture-creation are a CEO’s top responsibilities. They can’t be delegated. That doesn’t mean that others aren’t a part of the process or that you can’t have outside facilitators, but there isn’t a replacement for CEO buy-in. Read more about this: It’s time to chart the path forward. Where is your CEO?

One exception is within large organizations that have several distinct and fairly autonomous brands. In these scenarios, it’s okay for the process to be driven by whoever leads and takes ownership of a given sub-brand.

Example: marketing delegation

It's not uncommon for marketing leaders to be tasked with spearheading these things under the banner of brand. But directional strategies shouldn’t be done by any given domain—they transcend departmental boundaries. It’s perfectly acceptable for a department to be responsible for the project management aspect of these exercises, but directional decisions can’t be made within that same bubble.

Inaccurate, misleading, or off-base

In other words, just plain wrong. If your mission or values are inaccurate, they lose all power. They become liabilities rather than assets. 

No one sets out to screw this stuff up. But it can happen, and a common culprit is confusing truths with aspirational sentiments. For example, a company might have diversity as a core value, even when its organization isn’t diverse. That causes damage because employees can plainly see that the company doesn’t follow through on what it claims to value. This undermines everything else the org says is true. We’ve seen this exact example more times than we can count.

To be clear, this is never done intentionally. It’s usually done with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any less harmful.

Remedy: get real

First, ensure the right people are weighing in and that everyone is committed to truth and accuracy. Once that’s in place, it can be helpful to use qualifying labels like core values, aspirational values, and accidental values. This can make a world of difference. There is no reason you can’t have aspirational values in addition to core values. It adds nuance and accuracy.

Example: diversity

Following up on the diversity example, it would be better to label it as an aspirational value rather than a core value. That lets everyone know that you hope to achieve it while acknowledging that you have a ways to go.

Old or outdated

If you’re experiencing an inflection point, your mission, vision, and values might be holdovers from an earlier iteration of your business. In that case, it likely no longer applies to your present situation.

Your mission, vision, and values might have been true before your new CEO came aboard, before your ownership changed, or before COVID changed your business model. That’s fine. But if things have shifted, your foundational strategy must also shift. 

Keep in mind this doesn’t mean your mission should change every year or two. If your mission changes often, it’s a red flag that it either never accurately applied or that your company is floundering foundationally.

Remedy: reset

Take several big steps back and readdress your directional strategy in its entirety. Avoid tackling elements piecemeal. If it feels like you are too close to the problem, or it’s difficult to fully move on from what guided you in the past, bring in a consultant like Parliament to provide an outside perspective.

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Example: Marzocchi

When Marzocchi came roaring back to life a few years ago, it needed to redefine its purpose and brand relationship with its parent company, Fox. We had to decide which parts of its heritage would continue and what would be jettisoned. In the end, Marzocchi came to stand for bomber products that facilitate good times—a position that complements rather than competes with Fox’s focus on performance. It honors Marzocchi’s heritage, but it’s also a shift.

Without alignment, directional strategies are pipe dreams.

Being a product of compromise and committee

You wanted to solicit and incorporate everyone’s input. But, at best, too many cooks and no chef lead to a discombobulated meal. At worst, no food at all.

Maybe you sent out a survey to the entire company. Suddenly you have dozens of different missions and values, and you’re left trying to mash them all into one. A hodgepodge of ingredients and flavors predictably tastes terrible.

While the intention is understandable, the outcome is like tossing a bunch of words into a word cloud generator and expecting something compelling in return. In the end, there’s no there there.

Remedy: start narrow, not wide

Purpose and values should come from your owner, founder, or CEO. Outside input can be helpful in clarifying and sharpening purpose and values, but they shouldn’t be modified in order to have a wider or differing appeal. Don’t hear us wrong—unity is absolutely essential. But it shouldn’t come about as a result of compromise. It needs to be developed through buy-in.

If the owner, founder, or CEO isn’t capable or willing to take ownership of these parts of the business, it’s time for a big change.

Example: top-down conviction

We’ve worked with several companies who’ve attempted to develop purpose from the ground up—from employees or even from customers. It sounds nice and democratic, but it’s a tail-wags-the-dog scenario. Staff and customers come and go, and new ideas about purpose and values come with those changes. It’s been unsustainable in every case because the approach lacks long-term conviction. Take Patagonia as an example. It’s certainly a do-good organization that cares about its employees and impact, but all came from Yves Chouinard’s conviction.

Not communicated

Your directional strategy is only helpful if your entire team can execute it. If it’s scattered across ten different documents, living in someone’s head, fractured, or otherwise not codified, it might as well not exist. It has to live somewhere shareable where everyone can see it. The hand-drawn Believe sign from Ted Lasso above the coach’s office door? Everyone on the team can see it from their locker.

Remedy: a single source of the truth

Whether it’s a PDF, doc, slide deck, or website, make sure there is no mistaking which version is current and that it’s accessible to your entire team.

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Example: Rivian

RJ Scaringe, Rivian’s founder, had an extremely sharp vision for the business. But it wasn’t codified. Even though the company’s mission, vision, and values were crystal clear to him and those he worked with daily, they didn’t extend to the rapidly expanding workforce. Through a series of onsite and remote interviews, workshops, and review sessions, we pulled his vision out of his head and documented it in a way that was clear, accessible, and executional for his entire company.

No plan to bring it to life

Like having mission, vision, and value statements that nobody’s read, you won't get far without the right people in place to execute it. The trap is thinking that just because it’s done, you’re done. 

You need to fully commit to making it a living, breathing reality. And that takes work. It can take time to embed that mission in the culture, and it’s very much tied to scale. For larger organizations, turning the ship is going to take time; if you’re small and nimble, less so. But even then, it won’t happen magically.

Remedy: reference and use it often

It should be regularly communicated and reinforced. Quarterly at minimum. There should be no doubt that it’s the roadmap your company uses. It should be referenced when kicking off new initiatives, creating campaigns, or developing new products. If everything ladders up to it—it’s real. If it’s simply a checkbox that is quickly forgotten—it’s not.

Example: mythic execution

The team at Rainier Beer recently told us that pages from their Brand Platform are printed and displayed near their desks as everyday directional reminders. They reference them every day, helping them stay on brand and deliver Irreverent, Outdoorsy, Mythic, and Genuine stuff.

Lack of organizational commitment

The failure here traces back to the origins of developing mission, vision, and value statements. If leadership is going through the motions (skipping meetings, tuning out, off camera on Zoom), whatever your mission statement says will fall on deaf ears. If they’re calling it in, it shouldn’t be surprising when everybody else does the same thing.

Remedy: real leadership

If you have strong, skilled leaders, this shouldn’t happen. Your leadership needs to be fully bought in from the beginning, actively attending and engaging in meetings. Their passion, excitement, and commitment to the process and results should be evident.

Example: a cautionary tale

We were once brought in to help two organizations chart their path forward as they merged into one organization. Employees shared that they were worn out from constant priority changes and that they craved a clear, long-term vision. The CEO approved the engagement, but once it started, he regularly missed meetings, wouldn’t turn on his camera during Zoom meetings, and resisted one-on-one conversations with our leadership. The engagement struggled to move forward. Finally, he admitted that he wasn’t interested and never really bought into the process. He had been pressured by his team—a team who craved leadership.

You can lead a horse to water but can’t make them drink. CEO involvement and complete buy-in are critical and irreplaceable.

You can have a guiding north star if you know how to find it.

If creating an authentic, actionable, and effective directional strategy was easy, everyone would be able to do it. 

Understanding how easily they can go wrong is essential to getting them right. If you want to hear how Parliament can help you define your road map, give us a shout .