How to Brainstorm Mission, Vision, and Values

A clear purpose helps companies grow by communicating why they exist and how they do business. The answer to these two questions helps provide focus in hiring, enables teams to make decisions with greater autonomy, and increases strategic alignment.

This week’s article answers a question that was posed to us by one of our customers recently. They ask:

What do you recommend for a whiteboarding exercise for brainstorming mission, vision and values?

Too many promising businesses leave opportunity on the table by not addressing purpose properly. When done right, purpose can be one of the greatest levers for driving performance in a business.

A clear purpose helps companies grow by communicating why they exist and how they do business. The answer to these two questions helps provide focus in hiring, enables teams to make decisions with greater autonomy, and increases strategic alignment.

The good news is many businesses have begun to realize the need for a clear purpose – and they now know what purpose is and what it is not. But knowing you need to have a clear mission, vision, and values and having one are two different things. This article was written to help high-performing teams get theirs right.

How to get started with defining your mission, vision, and values

Let’s dive into the process for defining your company’s mission, vision, and values.

Step 1: Figure out who will be involved and how you’ll gather feedback

The best mission, vision, and values are defined as a team exercise. You should start by figuring out who your team consists of. The more representative it is of the people who execute on your purpose, the more effective it will be.

At a minimum, you should include your senior leadership team. You may also want to include the rest of your team, perhaps at a later stage in the process. If you have a high-touch relationship with your customers or stakeholders, you may also want to include them in the later stages.

Avoid doing it alone

Avoid the temptation to do it yourself. While it’s helpful to draft some ideas beforehand, do not try to define the mission, vision, or values of your business before you involve your team. Doing so will likely make the process ineffective, by skewing the results towards your own opinions.

Remember, if you’re seen as the boss, your team will try to follow your lead. The end product of what they deliver will likely reflect your input, rather than being aligned with the realities of your business.

Step 2: Assess your strategy

Speaking of the realities of your business – your company’s mission, vision and values are part of your strategy. Be sure you have a clear and up-to-date answer for each of these questions before proceeding.

  1. Who is your customer(s)?
  2. Why do your customers buy from you?
  3. What gaps exist in the market that you currently address or plan to address?
  4. How do you address those gaps?
  5. What approach do your competitors take? Why or why not does the market like you versus your competition? (be broad with your definition of competitor)

If you don’t have clear answers, it can be helpful to draft a Business Model Canvas and a persona map. Pro-tip: you can create this inside of Minsilo, so you can easily link them to your purpose.

What if we are pre-sales (hint: treat it as a hypothesis)?

Not a problem. If you are currently pre-revenue or are undergoing a pivot to a new business model, market, or product, you should just treat these answers as a hypothesis. They’re your best guess until you have more complete information.

If you base your mission, vision, or values on a hypothesis, be aware that it too is now a hypothesis. You should be willing to change it in the future (although not without undergoing a substantial pivot of some sort – it’s important that your purpose is focused long-term).

Why does strategy even matter?

If you’re like us, then you’ve probably read several articles on defining your company’s purpose already. You may have noticed that only a few of those articles even touch on the topic of strategy. We think this is wrong for three reasons:

  1. Your mission doesn’t matter if the world doesn’t care. It might seem harsh, but a mission that doesn’t address a real need in the world isn’t going to help you succeed. In fact, it could even deceive you into thinking that there is real demand, even when there is not.
  2. Your vision must be realistic and specific. Note, we didn’t say it couldn’t be lofty. Most vision statements are. But it should not be so far removed from reality that nobody believes it. Instead, you should pick a goal that you could realistically achieve, even if it takes you 5, 10, 15, or 30 years.
    Vague vision statements are particularly dangerous. They provide no clarity on what you’re planning to achieve, and they are impossible to accomplish. Vision should be thought of as a single very long-term goal. All useful goals are specific in nature.
  3. Your values must align with your customer’s. Let’s take the example of Timex and Rolex. Both make watches. But they serve very different customers. It would be aligned with their brand and their market if Timex were to adopt a value of “frugality.” But Rolex would fail if they had the same value because their customer expects luxury and quality at (virtually) any cost.
    If Rolex were to roll out an economically minded watch, they’d probably fail to sell it. Conversely, if Timex were to sell a watch for thousands of dollars, they’d be hard-pressed to find many buyers.
    Amazon successfully adopted the value of frugality because it is core to becoming a ubiquitous online retailer (retail has notoriously low margins). But frugality might be seen as wasting time in a high-margin business, such as a law firm, where time is expensive.

A well-articulated strategy helps you avoid making these mistakes. Again, if you start the process of defining your mission, vision, and values without thinking about the consequences of them, you are setting up your company for failure.

Step 3: Brainstorming

At this point, you’ve figured out who will attend the brainstorming meeting and you’re thinking about what to discuss. You can hold this meeting in person (e.g. in front of a whiteboard or flipchart) or virtually through something like Zoom or Google Meet.

Here’s what has worked in the past for us.

Things to Bring

At a minimum, you should bring the following tools:

  • A way to capture your brainstorming notes – a smartphone camera is a great choice for saving whiteboard sketches. You can take screenshots or use a tool like Mural for brainstorming remotely.
  • Answers to each of the 5 questions brought up in Part 2, which address your customer and market opportunity. Be sure not to lead with these questions.
  • Any strategy documents that are relevant, such as customer personas, business model canvases, or SWOT analyses.
  • A timer to keep the meeting on track.

Agenda

We recommend two sessions for planning your mission, vision and values. This allows you to create a mental break between the initial brainstorming phase and the refinement phase. We do not recommend trying to compress this to a single day, because it’s hard to come to the discussion with a fresh perspective.

It is helpful to know that this meeting is mainly focused on seeding the conversation with ideas. It is important not to skip this meeting or use it to make decisions. Instead, it should fuel a broader conversation with the rest of the team.

Session One: Initial Brainstorming and Strategy Review

This meeting will take roughly 2 hours to complete. We recommend doing this one synchronously (e.g. in a live meeting — either in person or via a video conference).

  • First 5 minutes — introduction to the process. Explain why you’re holding this meeting and set expectations. Some people may not understand the value of this meeting, so it’s important to explain why they’re attending and why purpose is important.
  • 2-5 minutes — remind your team of what mission, vision and values are. Be sure to explain that they’re not the same thing as ethics or morals, and they’re not the same as altruism or philanthropy. It’s helpful to prepare 2-3 examples beforehand.
  • 10 minutes — brainstorm your mission. Why does your company exist? What need does it solve? What problem was it created to address? You may want to have a pad of sticky notes for each person, where they can write down their idea of the mission. It’s important to have each participant do this independently before coming together as a group. If possible, it’s best to do this anonymously, so people are comfortable being honest.
  • 5 minutes — review the results of this brainstorming exercise. You may find that there are several reasons why your business exists (e.g. several missions). Group the related missions and move on. Be sure not to judge the results at this point. You’ll go through a process of refinement later.
  • 5 minutes — take a break. Allow people to step away from the brainstorming session.
  • 20 minutes — brainstorm your vision. It’s helpful to think of vision as a 10-year goal. Where does your company end up in 10 years if everything went right?
  • 5 minutes — review the results of the vision brainstorming. Again, you’ll refine the vision later.
  • 20 minutes — brainstorm at least 3 values. This will take some coaching to get right. Make sure people know what makes a good value before starting this, otherwise, you’ll likely end up with a list of generic and less-helpful values such as “integrity” and “do the right thing.”

I recommend people write down 10-20 values to start, then spend the last 2-3 minutes of the exercise narrowing down to 3 that they’re most confident in. Research shows that more iterations lead to better quality results, so starting with more and narrowing down as you go along is an effective way to get higher quality outcomes.

Be sure that everybody transfers their values to separate sticky notes (one per value).

  • 10 minutes — review everybody’s 3 values. Go through all of the sticky notes and find the duplicates. If there isn’t any overlap, then you’ll want to have people vote on each one. It can be helpful for a founder or CEO to break ties during this discussion.
  • 5 minutes — take another break. The next section of this meeting will be to talk about strategic alignment.
  • 2 minutes — bring out any relevant strategy documents you have. It’s helpful to either share them with the team at this point, then show them via screen sharing (if virtual) or place them up on the wall if you have them printed out for in-person use.
  • 30 minutes — Start reviewing each of your core strategy documents. Forget about your mission, vision, and values for a few minutes. It’s helpful to have the person who’s the experts on each topic give a high-level summary of their section.

Use your own judgment with time, but do be sure to set a time limit for each strategy document. Not all strategy documents should take the same time.

Now, it’s time to step away and take a breather. Encourage everybody to review the documents from the meeting at least once before the second session.

Step 4: Reflection, Discussion, and Refinement

After your initial brainstorming meeting, you should have a lot of great ideas of what to discuss with your team. This is the point where we recommend making the conversation asynchronous — that is, having it virtually.

The easiest way to do this is to use a tool like Minsilo to facilitate the discussion part of the process. You can create your mission, vision, and values inside of Minsilo itself and then work to iterate on it. You can post comments on each section, where you can keep a full conversation of your entire decision-making process.

From there, you can use the alignment annotations feature to explain how each part of your purpose aligns to your strategy – this context is key to ensuring it actually matches.

Regardless of what tool you use, we recommend that you:

  1. Discuss your mission, vision, and values independently. It’s helpful to have separate discussion threads for each one.
  2. Discuss alignment between your proposed mission, vision, and values and your strategy. This is the ideal time to have a conversation with your team (virtually) about whether your purpose is actually supported by your strategy (and vice versa).
    Use this opportunity to also discuss any gaps between your purpose and the environment your business is in, including the needs of your customers, the market, and the world at large.
  3. Actively call out and address any faults in your purpose. It’s important to not be too married to a specific mission, vision, or value statement at this point. Instead, this is the ideal time to be critical of your purpose and actively look for holes in it. It’s easier to change something at the ideation and brainstorming stage than it is to change an entire organization that is subscribed to it.

If done right, this process can take between a few days and several weeks to complete. You may want to include a broader group of people in this discussion, such as your entire company. The goal of this step is to refine and improve your purpose, before setting it into motion.

For example, Red Hat found success by conducting this period of reflection (for their new mission statement) by openly discussing it with the entire company via their “memo-list” mailing list several years ago. This was when they were already 20 years old and had thousands of employees; it’s not only an effective approach for small companies.

Finally, get people to vote

Once you’re confident in what you’ve developed, it’s time to actually vote on each element of your purpose. You can do this through a company-wide survey or privately in a meeting with your senior leadership team. We recommend tailoring the exact participants in this process to your company’s strategy and brand.

Step 5: Conduct a Town Hall

Now that you’ve decided on a mission, vision, and values, and you’ve written it down in a place that everybody can easily find – such as Minsilo – it’s now time to share it with the company as a whole.

Depending on how important this process is for you, you may want to include some festivities that help to build team culture by creating another impactful shared team experience. This could include getting everybody lunch or having a ceremony to introduce the new mission, vision, and values. We think that this can help you with employment branding when done right, and can help you strengthen your people’s confidence in the direction of your company.

Regardless of how you approach it, you should have the head of your company present your newly minted purpose. They should describe, through a story, what it means to live up to your company’s mission and values. They should then explain what your vision is and why it matters to the long-term success of the business in fulfilling its mission.

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Ryan Leaf

Ryan is the founder of Minsilo. He is passionate about autonomous teams, the future of work, and organizational alignment. In his free time, Ryan enjoys traveling, exploring cities, and learning to fly.