What about 'the vision thing?'

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In the late 1980s, we in the PRO-DAIRY Program (Cornell Cooperative Extension) assisted several hundred dairy farms each year in writing a vision/mission statement for their dairy farm business. From that experience, I acquired the description as “the vision guy.” Ten years ago, when I left academia to become a consultant, I knew that many of my colleagues thought, “In the real world, he’ll find out that vision isn’t as important as he thinks it is.”

The reality is that my 10 years in the “real world” have convinced me that “the vision thing” is even more important than I originally thought. Its importance comes from the ability of vision, mission and values to provide meaning to our work and in decision-making. Let’s look at each.

We in the dairy industry, and in all of agriculture, take great pride in the history of our farms — in our legacy. Why is that? It comes from the meaning that the farm has had to the members of our families, often over several generations. That meaning has been incredibly strong, even though it has often not been articulated in a vision or mission statement. That meaning has given our family dairy businesses a common purpose.

So what is different today? The importance of meaning has only become more important. Young people today, often referred to as the Gen X and Millennial generations, place an even greater emphasis on meaningful work than did their parents’ generations.

The big difference is that our farms now involve many more people. We have employees and often multiple families. The importance of a common purpose that is meaningful to every member of the workforce remains as or more important; however, the only way to communicate that common purpose to the larger number of workforce members is to thoughtfully and clearly articulate the common purpose as a vision/mission statement.

This statement need not be long or glowing. In fact, in my favorite book on vision/mission (Full Steam Ahead by Ken Blanchard and Jesse Stoner), the authors argue that it must be short. At Dairy Strategies, our significant purpose (a Full Steam Ahead descriptor of mission) is “We deliver insight.” The most crucial part of vision/mission is that it is communicated and used in making and explaining decisions and actions.

But just how do we use a vision/mission statement in decision-making? Take a look at the chart below.

click image to zoom

For now, you are a member of the Board of Directors of the Milligan Widget Store. The board must decide on the annual business plan for the coming year. The economic projections for the two alternative plans are in the table above. 

I am pretty certain that when you look at the plans, you will vote in favor of Plan B. We in agriculture are very efficiency- and profit-focused. In the sales world, however, maximizing total sales can be justified on the basis of building the customer base to generate future profits. If total sales was the goal, the board would choose Plan A.

Now let’s look at the situation while assuming that the board has not clarified the company’s goal. Some board members are profit driven and choose Plan A; others think sales are more important and advocate for Plan B. Not only do we have a disagreement, but more importantly, we have no way — no criteria — for settling the disagreement. There is no framework to guide the discussion and lead to a collaborative board decision.

This rather simple example illustrates the situation a farm or other business is in when the vision/mission has not been clarified. The owners have no framework for collaboratively making decisions; the employees also have no basis for making decisions. I often comment that in the absence of a common vision, almost every decision becomes a battle over the common vision because each person is advocating their solution based on their often very different vision for the farm.

So now we know “the vision thing” is real. The challenge is to make it concrete — real — for everyone in the business, both so they can use it as the framework to make decisions in the best interest of the farm and because it provides meaning to each person. For this to happen, farm owners and leaders must clearly articulate the vision/mission, continually communicate it to everyone and use it in making and explaining actions and decisions. 

Leadership Lesson: Joining the journey to the dairy farm vision provides the meaning that motivates owners, family members and employees to excel.

Bob Milligan is Senior Consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC and Professor Emeritus at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He can be reached at rmilligan@trsmith.com or 651-647-0495.


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