The fact that many organizations never succeeded in differentiating between vision and mission statements notwithstanding, these exercises often failed to produce anything more than a string of buzzwords embedded in a set of sentences that, upon close examination, said little or nothing about the future of the organization. In spite of their deficiencies, they were frequently memorialized on business cards, used as introductions to budget documents, or prominently displayed on the walls of high traffic areas for all to see and read. The trouble was, it was unusual to see anyone stopping to read one.
Now, I am not arguing that all vision statements were an exercise in futility that created more obfuscation than clarity. Some were very useful and served a good purpose. But crafting a single statement that effectively describes an organization’s desired growth, advancement, or development is a very difficult challenge and there is a more effective method available. Before I get to the alternative, let me share with you a draft of a vision statement that is currently a work in progress. I do not present this as a critical comment but merely to demonstrate the problem faced by any group trying to draft a vision statement. The following draft was prepared by a committee in the process of updating the Lawrence-Douglas County Horizon 2020 Comprehensive Plan.
“The City of Lawrence and Rural Douglas County is one of the most desirable places in the United States to call home. A well-educated community with a unique free-state spirit, we are diverse, publicly engaged, and boldly innovative. We are prosperous, with full employment and a broad tax base. Our development is human-scale and our neighborhoods are livable, allowing people downtown to age in place. We have ample choices for safe, efficient transportation including bicycling, walking, and transit. The City’s lively and historic downtown attracts residents and visitors for commerce and cultural arts. Our citizens value preserving and enhancing the natural environments for our enjoyment and for future generations. The proximity of rural and agricultural land to the city provides beauty and respite, and we enjoy the economic and health benefits of a robust local food system. We make Lawrence and rural Douglas County a place where creativity thrives, sustainability is a way of life, and community pride is contagious.”
The strong sense of community pride comes through loudly and clearly. However, the statement does not provide a mental image of what the authors hope to see the city and county become in the future. Documenting current strengths is a good starting place, but vision statements are supposed to be about the future.
I hope the authors keep working to produce something that will help them share their vision. But, rather than continuing to wordsmith a vision statement, I suggest the alternative I alluded to above. I recommend they write at least one story that addresses major issues the city and county must deal with in the future. Potential relevant subjects include the issue of jail crowding due to the incarceration of mentally ill persons and/or the development of adequate police facilities. Perhaps several short stories that each address a priority issue would be more effective than a single one covering multiple topics. There is no rule that limits the number of stories needed to communicate effectively. And this approach is far more effective than jamming multiple topics into a single and usually useless vision statement.
Joe Harkins’ career in public service spanned 50 years, including his service as the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment as well as the Director of the Water Office during the administration of Governor John W. Carlin. He retired in 2002 as the Director of the Public Management Center at the University of Kansas. After a short break, he returned to work first serving as a special assistant to the Governor then retiring again after completing a term on the Corporation Commission for the State of Kansas.