Collaborate Better Handbook

Mission, Vision, and Purpose

Getting aligned

by Eli Woolery


When Eileen Fisher set out to start her clothing business in 1984, she could have taken it in any number of directions. If she had been following the trends of the time, her first line might have included plaids, pleats, and shoulder pads. Instead, from the earliest days of her company, she had a vision for the principles that would guide her brand: 

There’s a certain fluidity about these clothes, a certain idea that one should move and eat and dance and all those kinds of things in our clothes. And so, because they’re so simple, they dress up or dress down. And I think women really like that they can wear a simple dress and wear it to work, or not take it off when they come home and grab their kids and sit on the floor and throw it in the washing machine. —Eileen Fisher

Eileen’s vision was successful because it also connected with the needs of her customers: working women who wanted a modular wardrobe that looked professional but that could also be worn out on a date or at home in a casual, comfortable setting. This kind of intuition drives the founding of many successful companies, and yet many of them struggle to sustain the intuitive thinking that led to their early success.

As companies scale, they often lose sight of their customers’ needs. They disagree about which problems to work on, and have trouble conveying a vision that will align their teams. They might also find it challenging to instill a sense of purpose in their employees, and to come up with a mission that motivates them.

In this chapter, we’ll learn what Chris Kemp, CEO of space company Astra, thinks about aligning his mission to customer needs. We’ll hear from author Dan Pink about why finding purpose in a company’s mission doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be working on saving the planet. And we’ll learn from leaders like Julie Zhuo why aligning cross-functional teams is critical, and how to go about it.

But let’s start with Eileen Fisher, who will help us understand the difference between vision and mission, and why both are so crucial to a company’s long-term success.

Mission and vision

Mission and vision are related concepts, but they’re not equivalent. To understand how they overlap and diverge, let’s take a look at Eileen Fisher’s mission and vision statements.

The mission statement is minimal but clear; it tells the story of a company that values simplicity and great design. The vision statement is aspirational; it envisions a future where not only is the organization making efforts toward more sustainable and ethical outcomes, but the fashion industry as a whole is moving in that direction, too.

Well, we want to be transparent. We want people included in the sort of imperfectness of what we’re trying to do and that we’re in process. And you know, we want to help them understand what we’re trying to do and what our big goals are. We really want to be a circular company. 

We want to take responsibility for all the materials that we use, all the products we put out there, all the dye process and all the things involved in it. And it is incredibly complex. And so, you know, we work at it every day and just try to keep getting better. And we include our customers in, like, trying to tell them what we’re doing and inviting them to bring their clothes back and be a part of the circle. —Eileen Fisher

Eileen Fisher’s vision also aligns well with the priorities of its younger customers. As shared on CNBC, “according to a 2020 report by First Insight, 73% of Gen Z consumers surveyed were willing to pay more for sustainable products, more than every other generation surveyed.”

As Aarron mentioned in Chapter 2, Airbnb’s mission is simple and direct: to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere. When we spoke to Brain Chesky, he underlined the importance of creating a clear mission statement:

Ask yourself … whether or not you can identify your progress towards getting there, ask yourself every time [you] sell something to a customer, “are we honestly doing this or not?” And this is a challenge we’ve had … the bigger your platform, the more risk there is of divergence between what you say you do, and what you sell.

And then I think it’s really important that you have what I call defining actions, actions that can grab attention from people to say, “This is what we stand for.” And you don’t just merely do it for attention, but … if you truly mean something, then you have to put something on the line. —Brian Chesky, Airbnb CEO and cofounder

Unless you’re at an executive level, you may not have much influence over your company’s mission and vision statements. But you can help clarify what they mean for your team, and can create a more detailed version of them that relates more directly to the work your team does on a daily basis.

Aarron pointed out in Chapter 2 that as organizations grow, the lines of communication between teams become increasingly complex and, if one is not careful, fraught. The default state of different parts of a company is to become siloed, causing teams to duplicate work or, in the worst case, to operate at cross-purposes with one another. 

Related to this is the concept of alignment, which Aarron also discusses in Chapter 3. Alignment becomes critical for progress as companies scale. As Tesla CEO Elon Musk notes: “Every person in your company is a vector. Your progress is determined by the sum of all vectors.” If you can recall from your high school physics class—and no worries if not, we’ll walk you through it here—a vector has both an amplitude and a direction.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that each team’s amplitude is how effectively they are working toward their goal, which is their team’s direction. If the goals of different teams are misaligned, it doesn’t matter how hard they work or how effective they are: all of their efforts will cancel one another out, and the company will stall or head in the wrong direction entirely.

But if the teams are aligned on their goals, then the vector sum—the net effect of all the various teams collaborating toward the same goal—will mean that the company will be much more likely to succeed, even if some teams aren’t as effective as others.

Mission and vision statements are tools that can be used to help with this alignment. According to Atlassian, “a mission statement defines the organization’s business, its objectives, and how it will reach these objectives. A vision statement details where the organization aspires to go.” Mission statements are descendants of mission command in the military, where mission orders tell subordinates what to do and why they are doing it, but don’t tell them how. Allowing teams to choose their own problem-solving methods lets them deal with friction more effectively so they can carry out their leader’s objectives.

If we go back to our vector analogy, then the mission statement would be the high-level goal(s) of the company—where the vector is currently heading. The vision statement would be where the vector will take the company in the future. 

If you’d like a framework for creating vision and mission statements at a product level, we have a template in Freehand that was co-created by Shawn Johnson (Former GVP Product and Design for Discovery+). It will help you go from Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to MLP (Most Lovable Product) by focusing on the key cross-functional milestones that matter on the path to successful product launches, including crafting vision and mission statements.

Bringing talent into your orbit

The space company Astra’s mission is to “improve life on Earth from space.” It’s an ambitious goal, but one that translates down to the daily tasks of the product managers, engineers, and designers working on the company’s rockets. Astra is one of the few Silicon Valley companies whose work is literally rocket science.

As Chris says, they have to translate the work they are doing into value for their customers, which doesn’t necessarily mean the highest-performing engineering solution. They’d rather have a rocket that costs half as much than a 10 percent improvement in performance. Chris relates it to this hypothetical scenario:

So to some degree, what if a FedEx truck pulls up to your house and it has an eight hundred-horsepower engine and it can go zero to sixty in a second? And you’re like, well, that sounds cool. What’s not cool is if there’s only five of them in the world and it comes to your neighborhood once a year, right?

Having a clear mission keeps teams connected to their goals and aligned on the work they need to do to create value for their customers. While mission and vision statements are crucial for these internal purposes, they are also important for external-facing reasons. 

Because talented engineers, designers, and other employees are often hard to recruit, having clear, compelling mission and vision statements can set your company apart as you seek to grow your teams. As Chris says, “you have to begin with something that matters.”

Finding mastery, autonomy, and purpose

But what if you’re not improving life on Earth from space, as Astra aims to do? What if your mission statement isn’t as compelling as Tesla’s (to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy) or Patagonia’s (We’re in business to save our home planet)? Not all companies have such grand ambitions, and it turns out—at least when we’re talking about employee motivation and satisfaction—that that’s OK.

In his book Drive, Dan Pink looks at the science behind what motivates us at work and identifies three key elements: mastery, autonomy, and purpose. If you’ve ever taken pleasure in getting better at a video game (Super Mario Brothers on a hacked Nintendo Wii is a current favorite in our household), learning a new instrument, or practicing a challenging sport, you know mastery. It’s our innate urge to get better at things. 

As for autonomy, if you’ve ever suffered through a project with a micromanaging boss, you’ve experienced its opposite. Autonomy means being self-directed, working on projects you are assigned to in whatever way you find most effective. Or, going beyond that, it means having an opportunity to work on whatever you’d like: take Google’s famous 20% time ( some have called it “120% time”), for instance, or Atlassian’s Shipit days. 

Building products with a purpose, whether that’s with an educational mission like the Wikimedia Foundation’s or an environmental one like Patagonia’s, can inspire great work from teams and individuals within companies. These sorts of mission-driven companies certainly attract talented people. But when we spoke to Dan Pink about purpose, he admitted that he may have made a mistake when describing it, because it turns out there is more than one kind of purpose that matters to people.

Consider, for example, the mission-driven kind of purpose: “We are feeding the hungry. We are building homes for people who would otherwise not have homes. We are coming up with life-saving drugs.” This type of purpose is important, of course, not only for a company’s success, but for addressing some of the most challenging problems facing our world.

Dan is quick to point out that mission-driven purpose “isn’t always at our fingertips. … [It’s] actually, in some ways, often hard to access.” But there is another kind of purpose, one that revolves around making a contribution. He calls the former type of transcendent purpose “capital P purpose,” while “small p purpose” includes things like: “Are you helping a teammate get a project out the door? Have you helped a client or a customer solve [a] problem? Is there one consumer out there whose life is a tiny little bit better because of what you have [done]?”

Even if you’re working at a company propelled by “capital P purpose,” it can sometimes be hard to tie your day-to-day tasks to the grander mission. But if you’re able to contribute even in small ways toward the goals of the organization, “small p purpose” can help you and your team stay motivated and aligned. 

Aligning on goals and vision

Whether you’re tasked with something big or small, how do you make sure your team is progressing toward your company’s mission and vision? Often, outcomes are tied to things that can be measured: clicks, shares, orders placed, widgets purchased.

But to repeat what sociologist William Bruce Cameron said in Informal Sociology: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Sometimes you need to look deeper to understand what really matters to your customers.

The first thing that we find is effective to do is to make sure that we are aligned on what is the big picture. What is the outcome that we’re trying to aim for as a company, and not just like a design team, but as all of the product disciplines? —Julie Zhuo, author of The Making of a Manager

Julie Zhuo, former vice president of product design at Facebook and author of The Making of a Manager, told Aarron and me that in her role at the social media company she “need[ed] to find ways to then translate [the team’s] vision into a number of things that we [could] measure or hold ourselves accountable for.” They got adept at measuring things like engagement when deploying new features, but “the part that sometimes gets lost is … we can be very good at measuring what people do, but what about what people feel, because that is important too.”

At Stanford’s, where I teach the undergraduate capstone course, we encourage students and executives going through design thinking training to use a framework we call a point of view (POV) statement. This helps underscore the emotional experience that their users or customers are trying to achieve.

A POV statement consists of three elements:

  • Who is your user or customer? (Note as many specific details as possible.)
  • What is their deep, unmet need?
  • Why is this insightful? 

A good POV statement is almost like a mission statement for a new (or redesigned) product or service, and can be tied to the organization’s larger mission. Here’s one that industrial designer Doug Dietz used to redesign the MRI experience for GE Healthcare, as described in the Design Thinking Handbook:

We met scared families trying not to fall apart during the hospital visit.

We were amazed to realize that they have to sedate 80% of children between 3 and 8 years old, in order to have them scanned.

It would change the world if we could capitalize on the child’s amazing imagination to transform the radiology experience into a positive, memorable adventure.

With this POV in mind, Doug and his team knew the emotional benchmark they needed to meet: they had to build something that turned a previously frightening experience into a positive, memorable one. They could then measure whether or not their redesign accomplished what they set out to achieve.

According to Zhuo, getting this kind of alignment is important “before we start building out features, before we start looking at numbers and evaluating what they mean. … We have to level-set on what those goals are.”

Creating a mission and vision for your company is critical for keeping teams aligned and working toward a common purpose, but mission and vision aren’t necessarily sufficient for coming up with ideas that will surpass your competitors or help your products stand out in a crowded, noisy world. In the next chapter, we’ll look at the mindset and tools that are necessary to remove creative blocks and generate innovative ideas.

About the Authors

Eli Woolery
Senior Director of Design Education / InVision

Eli Woolery is the Senior Director of Design Education at InVision, and co-host of the Design Better Podcast. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

Aarron Walter
Author and co-host of the Design Better Podcast

Aarron Walter is the co-host of the Design Better Podcast, and author of Designing for Emotion. He was the Director of Product on the COVID Response team at Resolve to Save Lives, and prior to that, the VP of Design Education at InVision. He founded the UX practice at Mailchimp where he helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million. He’s the author of a number of books, the latest of which is a second edition of Designing for Emotion. Aarron’s design guidance has helped the White House, the US Department of State, and dozens of major corporations, startups, and venture capital firms.

You can find Aarron on Twitter and LinkedIn.