JFK on Vision and Mission

July 19, 20215 min read

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” said Neil Armstrong when he became the first person to set foot on the moon on July 20th 1969.

It was a momentous achievement - the culmination of a space program initiated by President John F Kennedy soon after he came to office at the outset of the same decade. The ongoing use of the term ‘moon shot’ in OKR circles is a clue to how much we can learn to this day about crafting the company vision and mission from how Kennedy went about envisioning that space program.

Clarity

To start with, we learn that Kennedy believed a singular goal works best for the vision. How do we know this? Because when Kennedy reviewed NASA‘s plans soon after coming to office in 1961, he encountered an institution with not one, but three open-ended, abstract, even somewhat fuzzy goals.

They were:

  1. Improve space technology to meet national interests in space.
  2. Achieve pre-eminence in space for the United States.
  3. Advance science by exploring the solar system.

Kennedy’s reaction was to focus on “advance science by exploring the solar system.” He then reframed this goal into the more concrete goal of, “the scientific exploration of the moon and planets.” From this, we can also deduce that while the vision does not need to be time-bound, it should be concrete rather than abstract.

From Vision to Mission

When you take a closer look at Kennedy's approach, what becomes apparent is that the often referenced ‘moon shot’ was not the vision, but the mission that flowed from the vision achieving ‘the scientific exploration of the moon and planets.' This is how Kennedy introduced that mission to Congress on May 25th, 1961:

“This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

The lesson here is that the mission flows from the vision, is still highly ambitious, but is also time-bound and far more concrete objective than the vision. “Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” was the mission, said Kennedy; and this was to be achieved “before the decade is out”. Or in other words, Kennedy gave NASA a deadline of nine years to accomplish the mission.
 

From Mission to Milestones

The mission was then broken down into a timeline of milestones. These were a series of stepping-stone missions leading up to the completion of the main mission that flowed from the vision. By taking this approach, a mission that was pushing the boundary of human capability was made to seem and be more doable - because the stepping stone missions were the practical, manageable steps required to deliver an ultimate goal that would have been far too difficult to go after directly.

In the case of the lunar program, the milestones were framed as the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo program. As Research Scientist Jude King explains:

“Each program was built to realize a key milestone. The goal of Mercury was to put a person in Earth’s orbit, the goal of Gemini was to perform docking in space, and the goal of Apollo was to build all remaining capabilities needed to land on the moon. In this way, Kennedy set in place three milestones that cascaded into the ultimate goal of moon landing.”

The Power to Inspire

But the vision did more than serve as the well-spring for the mission and its milestones. Both the vision and the mission also served to enthuse the workforce. This outcome is conveyed by the well-known story that has Kennedy touring a NASA facility when he encounters a janitor busily mopping the floor.

“What are you doing here?” asks Kennedy.

“I’m helping put a man on the moon!” replies the janitor.

The point, of course, is the mission had so captured the imagination of the janitor – or ‘engaged’ him to use management terminology – that it had to some extent become the janitor’s own adopted purpose.

 

 

Did Kennedy’s encounter with the janitor really happen? It's difficult to know for sure. But thanks to the study of the space program conducted by Andrew Carton, Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania, we can be sure that heightened levels of staff engagement at NASA were very real. The same is true of the spirit of collaboration that pervaded the workforce and flowed from the shared sense of purpose.

“Even people who were quite far removed from the famous goal of landing a man on the moon reported feeling an incredible connection to this ultimate goal…Rather than talking about, ‘I’m fixing electrical wiring’ or ‘I’m stitching space suits’ or ‘I’m mopping the floors,’ they would actually identify their work as ‘I’m putting a man on the moon.’ It was a strikingly unique period of time where many people across the entire organization had these kinds of perceptions”.

No doubt all leadership teams would love to have the same levels of workforce engagement and collaboration. But the benefits of the well-crafted vision and mission didn't end with engaging the workforce. Because there was one more very important group of people who were also inspired. They were, of course, the American people – the taxpayers without whom there would have been no space program in the first place. Or as Gus Grissom, played by actor Fred Ward, memorably put it in the 1983 film, The Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rodgers!”
 

In Conclusion

To summarize, according to the Kennedy approach, there are five key points to take into consideration when crafting the vision and mission:

1. A compelling vision encompasses one concrete but not necessarily time-bound goal.

2. Like the vision, the mission that flows from the vision also encompasses a singular goal.

3. The mission goal is doable yet highly ambitious and concrete. But unlike the vision, it's also time-bound.

4. The mission can be further broken down into a series of sub-missions that serve as stepping-stones on the path to completing the main mission.

5. The vision and mission must serve to engage both staff and the group who will finance the operation, i.e. the taxpayer, or investors and customers in the case of private sector enterprises.

As for the payoff of coming up with a vision and mission that achieve these outcomes, it's clearly strategic in nature, given increased workforce engagement, alignment, collaboration, and market appeal, all combine to deliver competitive advantage. For the same reason, vision and mission are decisive considerations according to OKR theory.

But to be fair, most CEOs are working with far more down-to-earth stakes than epoch-making initiatives like putting a man on the moon. However, it’s also fair to say that neither will most CEOs need to raise the equivalent of trillions of inflation-adjusted dollars over the space of a few short years.

Nonetheless, the process of coming up with a concise vision and mission that meets all of the above criteria to any degree is still not easy. It requires imagination. It requires perseverance. It requires, as one OKR consultant who specializes in helping CEOs craft the vision put it, “digging deep!” – and after all that comes the equally challenging task of communicating and aligning the entire workforce with the vision. But then again, who said being the CEO was supposed to be easy?