Someone organizes an off-site strategic planning meeting for all the key executives. One of the first tasks is to create a mission and vision statement for the organization. A management guru in the 1980s decided that writing these magic sentences will somehow keep an organization more focused on what they are good at doing. A mission statement is supposed to answer the question: What does the organization do? A vision statement is supposed to answer the question: What is the most important thing for the organization to accomplish in the next 3-5 years?

Ideally both statements should be crafted by the CEO or a single executive, but rarely is this case. Organizations today like to do everything in teams in order to get “buy-in” from everyone. The fallacy is that even though a team may have spent 4-8 hours agonizing over some vague paragraph or sentence, no one leaves happy with the end product. The final statements are compromises and end up getting so watered down that any real meaning is usually lost.

Some organizations actually have good mission statements, like Disney’s: “We make people happy.” It is short, memorable and reminds everyone why the company exists. The problem with this mission statement is that it might apply equally well to Anheuser-Busch. Beer makes people happy too. Most guys I know are a lot happier with a six-pack than a day at Disneyworld. (Come to think of it, Anheuser-Busch used to have amusement parks too, before they sold Busch Gardens to SeaWorld.) So Disney’s mission of making people happy fits Anheuser-Busch quite well.

A good mission statement is specific enough so that it would not apply to 10 other companies, but not so specific that it limits an organization from exploring new ventures or markets. For example, the old Northrop Corporation was in the aircraft business. The new Northrop Grumman is in the defense business, and aircraft are only one of many different types of products they offer.

A vision statement has a different purpose. It is supposed to create a picture of where the organization wants to be, or what it wants to accomplish for the future. In tough times, a vision might not focus on attaining a lofty growth goal, but focus more on survival.

A Navy organization I worked with was being studied for possible closure. Their vision was, “Still here next year.” This was a very clear vision to everyone—survival is sometimes the most important thing. Once you achieve that, then you can figure out something more to focus on. This might be an appropriate vision for many banks and insurance companies today.

The funniest vision statement I’ve seen recently (which was pointed out to me by my colleague Bernard Marr) is Hilton’s: “To fill the earth with the warmth and light of hospitality.” I don’t know about you, but I haven’t felt much of that warmth and light on my last few stays at Hilton’s.