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Thursday 29 November 2012

One of the most common issues I've seen on the ground is clarity of, and coherence between, Vision, Mission and Strategy. This is often the root cause behind poor solution design, difficulties in achieving lasting outcomes, and challenges with raising money.

To make it easier to explain how they fit together and the order in which they should be developed, I've put together a short video that connects the dots for you.

The video is based on learnings from my work with more than 100 projects around the world. I'll try and address common issues, myths and challenges faced by social organisations in both designing for outcomes as well as delivering them.

[Note: If the video doesn't play in your browser, view on YouTube at http://youtu.be/aRcox743Dfg]

Here's the transcript with a downloadable graphic in case it makes the video easier to process:

Very simply, with social change, direction is laid down by your vision, and your mission is to achieve that vision. The trouble is that if your vision isn't clear or sensible, you end up without proper direction, and consequently without a proper basis for design. Your strategies end up all over the place, and you become very susceptible to mission drift. Outcomes lose coherence, and impact becomes a random pick n mix. Donors struggle to connect with unclear goals, and shy away from disconnected strategies. The end result as I mentioned earlier, is a struggle for survival, but more importantly a struggle to achieve the impact that is needed on the ground.

After addressing this issue a number of times, I've put together an easy DIY toolkit to help you visualise how all the pieces connect together.

Let's call it a Metamodel of Solution Design. A blueprint for your organisation. To keep it short, I'll focus here on a high level overview to show how everything connects, but I'll explore each piece and provide working examples in later posts to help make it a little more real.

People tend to start with either vision or mission, and sometimes even with strategies. In actual fact the first place to start is with the Problem Definition.

Without a good characterisation and deep understanding of the problem, none of the other aspects of solution design have any hope of being effective.

Contrary to general assumption, the problem definition is not a one-line statement. What we're talking about here is a detailed picture of the problem at hand, with data that validates and benchmarks the outcomes that indicate there is a problem that needs addressing.

Once you've got these, you need to understand the root causes behind those characteristics; in other words, understand what drives the problem.

The benchmarks in your problem definition will allow you to identify Macro Indicators, and thus the outcomes to aim for. These should be lasting % point changes on a regional level over a mid to long time-frame. Over time they will also tell you if your strategies are actually achieving anything useful, and whether or not you need to rethink.

Critically, the problem definition defines why you care, and why you set up your organisation in the first place. It is the fundamental basis for your existence as a social entity, so invest the time to get it right.


Once you have the problem well defined - you can then move on to Vision.

Your vision is what the problem looks like when it's fixed. Again, what is needed here is a detailed picture rather than a single statement. With this, you have the potential to inspire, and you have a proper target to aim for. You can later summarise this into a one-liner for communication purposes.

The vision also helps you define your targets. I recommend splitting it into at least three phases - a short term realistic vision, a mid-term challenging vision, and a long term aspirational one.

Overall your vision provides goals and direction. It is the fundamental basis for design and decision making.


Once you've got this in place, your Mission is then to address the problem and achieve the goals and targets set by your vision.


Your Strategies are how you will achieve the mission. In other words, how you aim to fix or eradicate the problem altogether. Focus your strategies on the root causes identified in the problem definition.


Roadmaps are how those strategies will be applied over the timeframes you set to achieve the mission. This is where you identify short and long term programmes, and understand dependencies and priorities.


Tactics are how your strategies breakdown into actions and delivery planning along the phases of your roadmap.

You are free to focus maximum detail on the short term, because the roadmap lets you understand what needs to come next. Keep your planning light for the later stages, because your blueprint will evolve as you go along.


Strategies and roadmaps together help define Organisational Design and operational structure, along with how they will need to scale or evolve over time.


Roadmaps and tactical programmes provide your Micro Indicators. These are numerical increases in size, impact or reach in short timeframes. Many organisations use these as actual impact indicators, but this is a flawed approach. All they do is tell you if you're on track with your plan. They don't necessarily mean that your plan or strategies are solving the problem in the long term, which is what your design should be aiming for.


Finally, your detailed tactical planning enables you to Cost your work, which then allows you to raise the appropriate financing or funding.


I recommend reviewing the whole conceptual framework about 9 months into an annual cycle. You should aim to adjust targets, strategies and roadmaps based on learnings and/or how the environment is changing.

Then repeat the detailed tactical planning for the next year with higher level adjustments across the rest of the time-frame where needed.

If you've taken the time to really understand the problem, your core vision and mission on the other hand should remain constant until data on macro outcomes indicates that the problem has been resolved or that it is no longer an issue.

At this point you and your organisation are ready to exit that particular space. You can then choose to close down, or switch attention to another issue. With human transformation work, you're typically looking at between 8 and 15 years as a sensible time-frame to really start seeing impact on a macro level. Resolving an embedded issue altogether will likely take you even longer. Regardless of what anyone tells you, there are no quick fixes and no magic bullets.

Many thanks to Akshay Cherian for helping me put this together, and credit to Barbara Holtmann for coining the phrase 'what it looks like when it's fixed', although I've used it here in a slightly different context.

Thanks for tuning in. Please share if you found it useful.