What is the difference between Mission and Purpose and Vision?

Having a strong sense of Purpose that inspires people makes a real difference as our recent webinar explained.  But on that webinar about creating and sharing Purpose there were lots of questions about terminology.  It is clearly an area that causes confusion.  Most clients need to spend time on this and many different companies use the terminology in different ways.  Here are some useful definitions.  What is important is that you decide what makes sense to you and then use the terminology consistently.

Mission and Purpose

These are used interchangeably but think of Mission as What we are here to do and Purpose as Why.  Mission for Google is: “To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,”

Samsung introduces a “why” into their Mission Statement: “To inspire the world with our innovative technologies, products and designs that enrich people’s lives and contribute to social prosperity by creating a new future.”

The “why” is important and it usually refers to who we are doing things for.  It provides the inspiration.  In other words, why the “what” is worth doing.   For Google it is about making information available to everyone.  For Samsung it is about enriching lives and creating prosperity.

Now look at Amazon: “To be the Earth’s most customer centric company where people can find and discover anything they want.”  You see the same pattern of a What and a Why.


This is about what the world will look like when we are successful.  Google describe their vision as “to provide access to the world’s information in one click.”  Sounds pretty much like the mission to me.  Both Samsung and Amazon describe their Vision as their Missions.  But there is a difference.  Compare how Oxfam and Vodafone describe their purpose and their vision”


Purpose: “To help create lasting solutions to the injustice of poverty. We are part of a global movement for change, one that empowers people to create a future that is secure, just, and free from poverty.”

Vision: “A just world without poverty: a world in which people can influence decisions that affect their lives, enjoy their rights, and assume their responsibilities as full citizens of a world in which all human beings are valued and treated equally.”


Purpose: “To connect everybody to live a better today and build a better tomorrow.”

Vision: “A converged communications leader, a Gigabit Vodafone for the Gigabit Society.”

There are differences but clearly there is a close link between why we are here and what the world looks like as a result of our presence.  Both vision and mission are designed to help clarify and inspire.

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Common challenges you’ve probably noticed

Digital development is demanding change in the way businesses are run and how they interact with their audiences and their employees. No matter what sector you’re in, you’re likely to be facing at least one of these challenges:

  • Teams have less face-time as people share, work and interact more remotely.
  • Employees and customers are enjoying new relationships with employers and brands as we move to self-serving models: this creates the need to rethink communication and engagement with employees and how we structure customer service roles.
  • Employees want more opportunities to work with their employers to give back to society and the communities they serve.
  • Organisations want more agile approaches with empowered employees who understand both company strategy and customer needs.


A solution starts with a conversation

Solving these issues requires processes that connect leaders, managers, project teams and front-line staff.

The traditional top down approach is hopelessly inadequate, especially in large organisations. A cascade approach is too slow when there are multiple levels of management and a complex organisational structure. “Top down” also contradicts the message that organisations need to empower their people to take more responsibility for the delivery of satisfaction and productivity.

Achieving that kind of collaboration across an organisation puts a premium on the need for quality conversations – conversations that help people work out how they can support strategic direction. The kind of conversation that encourages people to challenge, work out what they need to do to support change, and feel a high degree of ownership of the outcomes of the conversation.


Exploring the visualisation of strategy

Couravel has been using Big Pictures to help leaders define strategy and then to help teams engage with strategy. The power of visual representation of strategic and market issues is well proven. It was first written about in the Sears case study in the Harvard Business Review which introduced the Service-Profit Chain. At Sears, groups came to a better understanding of the marketplace and what they needed to do to support competitiveness by addressing questions posed by a visual representation of the High Street.

To explore its relevance today we asked 15 leaders from different businesses how developments in technology would affect their business in the next five years. Using ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) Consensus Workshop approach, they grouped their answers into seven main themes:

  • Collaborative working
  • Liberating structures
  • Empowered customers
  • Dynamic skill sets
  • Disruptive markets
  • New world of risks
  • Big data.


Transformation challenges to address

We then invited them to draw these themes and use their insights and imagination to create a synthesis picture in real time.

The textual list below presents information related to transformational challenges, while the picture conveys the same information visually:

  • Always on and changing working patterns – timing and geography no longer blockages
  • Feedback is instant and we have to respond instantly
  • Enable paradigm shift in service design and operation – focus on understanding and improvement
  • Creating new skills to cope with technology change
  • Using data to inform decisions
  • Defining and mitigating new risks caused by over-reliance on technology
  • Identifying and responding to new competitive challenges



What this gives the organisation is a visual representation of Digital Transformation and what it needs to do to navigate change.

To involve people in a conversation about how to respond to these challenges, the visual route represents an engaging starting point because it:

  • Invites people to interpret what is going on
  • Is easier to access (you do not need to understand jargon like “paradigm shift”)
  • Provides information more quickly
  • Leads to a less critical and more curious audience (lists invite a more critical, sceptical response).

Conversations around the visual

What is more important than the visual are the conversations around it; and they must be well facilitated. The visual becomes the focus for a conversation whereas questions draw people out.

For example, questions we used following the ORID framework of ICA’s ToP Focussed Conversation method include:

  • What can you see in the picture? What else? (Objective)
  • How do you feel about what you can see? Anything surprising, confusing? (Reflective)
  • Where do you see yourself fitting? (Reflective)
  • What could this picture mean for how we work with each other and our colleagues in other teams? (Interpretative)
  • What risks do you think technology creates for us? (Interpretative)
  • How might we be able to mitigate these risks? (Interpretative)
  • How could we use new capabilities to provide better services for our customers? (Interpretative)
  • What does that mean we need to do differently? (Decisional)

Using pictures to lead the conversation around Digital Transformation

This led to some penny-dropping moments for people involved in the leadership of change. For example:

  • It is increasingly difficult to define and think in terms of “visions” as these rapidly become outdated in the face of global and disruptive competition.
  • Consultants working with clients are experiencing their own journey of change through the digital landscape and the relationship between client and consultant needs to shift from the expert to the consultative model (i.e. where facilitators operate most effectively)
  • This is also true of the relationship between customers and suppliers generally, but the changes are complex. In some respects, the relationship becomes more transactional and customers interface with technology to get what they want. This scenario sees people losing jobs as machines and robots take them over. But in other respects, the roles become more demanding and complex as the relationship becomes more akin to partnering: when customers want help it is because the technology cannot address more complex challenges (notice the bridge between suppliers and clients that is itself on wheels and constantly changing)
  • The value of tangible, visual outcomes that can engage people more because they are visual, different and not prescriptive and that can convey some of the nuances and challenges of change (notice the trolls waiting to sabotage change work)
  • The widespread application for approaches like this (see below).


Rethinking how we think about change

We need to rethink the process of change. If we want people to let go of past practices we have to pay more attention to the way individuals respond to change. To encourage people to collaborate to define new practices, here are a few “must haves”:

  • Fun
  • Novelty
  • Laughter
  • Celebration of past achievements
  • Reflection time
  • Generating our own ideas
  • Feeling valued and connected


Using the Technology of Participation facilitation approach and visual thinking tools such as Big Pictures, we can create the kind of approach to collaboration needed to support transformation.

This approach is valuable in most change situations including:

  • Introduction of new technology
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • New strategy
  • New strategy communication
  • Brand evolution or launch/relaunch
  • Design of new organisational processes
  • Defining cultures, behaviours and values

Visuals and support provided by David Gifford.

Storytelling is often seen as a communication tool to be used by leaders to influence an audience. But this misses one of the most powerful dimensions of stories – they are things that people, as social animals, have always shared and used to communicate deeper meaning. The sharing of stories has a powerful ability to […]

Technology will disrupt all our businesses in the next 5 years, and play a key role in changing how people work together. We used the pilot of our Leading the Big Conversation workshop to explore what it means for different organisations.

Participants from Accenture, ABRSM, BAE Systems, Defra, and Oxfam agreed:

  • Machines will take over many roles but people will remain at the centre of successful organisations
  • We will all need to acquire new skills to cope with new technology and its capabilities
  • Some will struggle to keep up with smarter working patterns and the cultures required to support them while traditional work/life balances will suffer
  • But the speed of innovation and the shift from hierarchy to network structures will also liberate people
  • Customers will benefit and new service relationships evolve
  • Competition will become fiercer, arrive from global sources and to stay competitive we will have to keep automating work
  • Risk management will require rethinking as threats to reputation and security multiply
  • Big data will transform what we do but we do not know how

The group translated this into a Big Picture and then used this to explore what it meant for them. As it was a pilot we collected lots of feedback on the impact of the process and implications for using it within their organisations. Feedback included:

  • “This approach is powerful”
  • 100% strongly agree that they appreciate the value of conversation as an approach to change
  • 100% agree today has been a good use of my time
  • “Fantastic day!”
  • “Feel a real sense of achievement.”

Here is a short video that captures the day.

I was helped by David Gifford who did his usual fantastic job of interpreting people’s ideas and scribbles into a coherent whole. I am also hugely indebted to the strategic facilitator and supporter of numerous colleagues Michael Ambjorn

Michael helped put the short video together and provides strategic facilitation and other services.



I was in Hanover today testing the appetite in Germany for The Big Conversation approach. We were slightly worried because some members of the client’s leadership team had expressed concern about whether the approach would ‘land’ here.

We had groups involved in testing work in progress on the current visual – a Big Picture of the Group’s strategy. So we talked them through the concept, the draft visual and they gave us 1 1/2 hours of feedback.

Reactions? They loved it! They thought it a great way of bringing strategy to life and involving teams in thinking about its implications for them.

By coincidence I ended up sitting next to one of the clients leadership team on the flight home. I told him the reaction and he was not surprised. He had shown some colleagues in Germany the UK version of the story and they had loved it too. So, rest assured – the Big Picture/Big Conversation approach does travel and works in cultures where some may fear more traditional business attitudes may prevail.

Leaders often talk about the need to align people behind goals and the challenge of doing so, and yet frequently adopt conventional top down approaches focused on “key messages” that just don’t work when change is so rapid and people expect more adult to adult approaches. A more impactful approach that resonates needs to relate to the way people naturally communicate. Organisations need to use conversational approaches that include core narratives and weave discussion about everyday challenges into more strategic conversations about higher purpose and longer-term goals.

For example TUI Travel, BAE Systems, Vodafone and TNT Express have all transformed understanding of strategy by inviting teams to discuss their priorities and actions in the context of a bigger picture. Ernst Young, Rolls Royce, RBS, Aviva, Cisco, Lilly and Royal Dutch Shell are all publicly talking about their use of narrative to help give people greater contextual understanding, to share goals and to improve collaboration.

Strategic conversations

A strategic conversation connects people to an organizational narrative. It is a conversation in which people talk about what they do in the context of a bigger picture; one that enables them to explore purpose, strategy, dilemmas, problems and solutions. It is a meaningful exchange that gives the opportunity to challenge and to think through what a team, or a group of people from different teams, aims to achieve in the context of bigger goals, and the best way to do so.

A strategic conversation is an intervention that prompts people to talk about forces for change, leadership intentions and their own intentions in response to local issues and challenges. Having conversations like these moves an organisation in the direction it aims to go. The theory underpinning this approach comes from social constructionism and, in particular, the work of David Cooperrider considered the father of Appreciative Inquiry – an approach to change that sees organisations as human living systems where asking questions and encouraging focused conversations which are not prescribed can help raise energy and change.

Different approaches work better in different situations and for different organisations, but here are 10 core principles that underpin any approach to help colleagues have more meaningful strategic conversations.

1. Provide clarity of purpose and vision

An organisation needs to be able to tell its stakeholders and its people what it stands for. For example:

  • Disney’s vision is to make people happy
  • Twitter wants to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.

These are more than marketing devised straplines to differentiate. These statements capture at a deeper level why an organisation exists: what it is for. This is important to give meaning to the people who work there for whom this purpose should be explicit and something that gets talked about constantly. For customers and other stakeholders, the purpose may be more implicit, but nevertheless it is important to confirm why the organisation is relevant for them.

The purpose needs to drive the business and sit at the heart of every strategic conversation. Even though it may not get mentioned in the course of the conversation, it still acts as a guiding light against which proposals, ideas, activities, behaviours and plans can always be tested by the simple question: is this aligned with our purpose?


Other famous statements include:

Nike: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

Google: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful

Amazon: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

2. Develop shared goals at top

This sounds like a statement of the obvious but the reality is that many organisations talk about wanting to align people behind their vision or purpose while leaders do not themselves share a set of common goals, or are not seen to.

Unless the top team can develop and convey commitment to coherent goals that they all share, and are seen to share, it is futile to expect other people, starting with their direct teams, to do so. The strategic conversation process must always include the top team for if there is any sense that there is a lack of shared goals from the top, energy and commitment for the process will drain away.

In larger businesses, this extends to the wider leadership cadre – typically the direct reports to the executive committee. Winning the buy-in of this group to the value of the conversation process, and providing them with the confidence and skills to lead their own conversations, is critical. For example, BAE Systems encouraged all members of its senior group to attend conversations led by their leaders before leading their own. In this way, the top group not only worked through a better and shared understanding of their strategic aims but also learned the value of a process that encouraged open dialogue and the exploration of how different teams support the strategy.

3. Encourage a focus on strengths and celebrate what the organisation does well

Our brains respond positively when we are told what we are good at and we focus on things that we do well. This builds self-esteem and releases dopamine in the brain that reduces threat and makes it easier for us to collaborate and create. Important elements in strategic conversations are current strengths, and historical successes, and it is the appreciation of these that carries an emotional punch for people.

Many will overlook the importance of this. They will avoid, for example, historical brands or reference to past (e.g. pre-merger) organisations. This is a mistake – even if brands or companies may no longer trade, their legacy may mean a lot to the people who still work in the business. Erasing them from the story just damages the impact of the narrative; celebrating past successes acknowledges what they meant to people and displays a sensitivity to, and confidence in, the history of the organisation.

Focusing on current strengths allows people to think about how we can build on them and is more likely to raise energy. Typically, conversations at work tend to focus almost exclusively on the issues and problems to address. The power of a positive focus can be demonstrated by making relatively minor shifts in the style in which conversations are led. For example, starting with some of the things that have gone well in recent weeks; key achievements of the business or people in it; positive customer or other feedback, etc.

4. Build conversation skills and curiosity

Good strategic conversations are really an enquiry into why things are the way they are and how they can be better. The kinds of questions to stimulate these can include:

  • What are we here to achieve?
  • What do we believe in?
  • What works and what does not?
  • Why does it or why doesn’t it work?
  • What can we learn from that?
  • How can we change the way we work?
  • How will we know if we are getting better?
  • What would our customer say if he or she was here?

What is implicit in this approach is the assumption that we all have a perspective on the world that is relevant and we each have an equal right to express that perspective. Sceptics may discount this because some people bring more to the team and its work than others. Of course, they do. But it is still the case that every person in the organisation shapes how it works and what it achieves. A spirit of enquiry helps all members to contribute to an exploration of what can be better and the team needs to ask itself these questions to reach alignment and that “aha” moment to connect what’s important day to day with the strategy and purpose

5. Focus on the Future

Strategic conversations need to focus on where we are going. They may and often do begin with where we have come from, what makes us proud and what are our successes. But a strategic conversation is primarily future focused – it is about where we want to get to and how are we going to get there.

The pace of change today often makes this difficult because people and teams need to react to what is happening around them as new competitors appear, customers defect, and new initiatives are launched. But a strategic conversation needs to be more proactive and to look at the things teams can do to influence events and to take more control of their environment.

For one recent client, this was at the heart of their strategic conversations and drove the process from the top down with the desire to look at the things that people could take control of and influence to ensure their work patterns and outcomes supported the achievement of the longer-terms aims of the business.

6. Adopt an external perspective

One of the great challenges a strategic conversation brings is its focus on the external and internal organisational drivers for change. Typically, these are

  • The needs or actions of customers, competitors, or regulators,
  • The outcome of social or technological trends
  • The impact of organizational change

Normally they are a combination of all the above. A good strategic conversation builds peoples’ awareness of these opportunities and challenges that lie well outside the team and provides a platform for people to reflect on them, perhaps to vent and then to think about options for supporting the response to them.

This is important not only because it acts as a reminder of how change is always necessary but also because it is the hallmark of a healthy organisation – and the ability to be able to monitor the external environment and make changes is what makes organisations sustainable. Increasingly the need to do this at local levels, quickly, marks out the higher performing organisations from the ones that get left behind.

7. Tolerate ambiguity and build resilience

We all crave certainty but modern businesses operate in a climate of huge uncertainty. We do not know if we will win that next contract or not, what resources we may have, when we will have a change of leader and who it will be, what political, environmental or technological forces will shape the economy and our livelihood, and so on.

Building resilience involves acknowledging that change happens and that it is not always good; indeed, it involves cultivating the expectation that life will always present us with challenges. Leaders face the choice of being open about these challenges or not, and they often choose not to for fear that such discussion will be unsettling or de-motivating.

In my experience people respond positively to invitations to discuss the implications of what a future decision may mean for the business, even though the people involved lack the power to influence the decision. The reality is that people talk about this all the time and strategic conversations provide the opportunity to talk openly about uncertainty and responding to it. And during conversations about the impact of change a clear purpose is helpful to keep people focused on what they want and what they are there to do.

For example HM Revenue and Customs over the years has transformed its estate reducing the number of offices. Although this uncertainty hung over the business it encouraged its local leaders to get involved in conversations about what the future may hold for them. They were not “comfortable” conversations but they were important. They helped people express their feelings and more importantly they helped them exercise some control over the way they managed and responded to change. It enabled people to think and talk about their personal concerns and to talk about how to lead their teams to maintain service to the taxpayer during uncertainty.

8. Be clear on outcomes and share responsibility

Strategic conversations are an opportunity for people to focus on the outcomes of their work that move the business forward in the right direction, and identify what does not. Clarity of outcomes makes it easier for teams to work smarter and to build trust based on achievement and delivery.

But strategic conversations are also about sharing responsibility for outcomes. On a pragmatic day-to-day basis, more and more uncertainty permeates our working lives. The future is less predictable and keeping people focused depends less on telling people what to do and more on working with them on what needs to be achieved. A strategic conversation is an opportunity to acknowledge uncertainty and share responsibility for managing it throughout the business. It is a mistake to think that as a leader or manager one can shoulder the entire burden. A strategic conversation shares responsibility and asks the team to think about what can be resolved and what needs to remain unclear.

9. Encourage discovery and emergent thinking

But equally, and alongside, the need for clarity of outcomes, strategic conversations provide an opportunity to explore new ideas and thinking about what teams and individuals can do to achieve outcomes in new ways.

To gain this insight and to create new ways of working a strategic conversation can help and encourage people to discover the direction of travel for themselves in a way that makes sense for them. It’s essentially about letting go but in the context of a clear framework.

This can be challenging for managers and the people who work for them, and it is one of the reasons why leading a strategic conversation is normally best done after people have participated in one themselves and have experienced the role they need to play as a conversation leader by being a participant first.

10. Build relationships

We need social relationships at work and outside, and neuroscience is demonstrating that these needs are as basic as our need for food and water (see for instance Matt Lieberman’s “superpower” talk at the RSA). When we are threatened, we want to connect more to groups. Global competition, digital transformation, changing work patterns, rising customer expectations and disruptive competition are all creating huge “threats” across industry.

We need to help people connect over strategic conversations that enable them to tackle these challenging problems together and to share perspectives to enrich their own and to come up with more informed action plans. These conversations help us to connect with each other at meaningful levels to build relationships that are important for our own health and for the good of our organizations.

Strategic conversations are here to stay. We no longer have the luxury to manage people in traditional ways. Success depends upon our ability to empower people, which requires a different level of awareness of the big picture and buy in to strategic priorities and common goals.