Crafting a Pragmatic Vision

Most companies have vision statements that are one or two sentences that are pie-in-the-sky and so generic and theoretical that no one, not even the people who wrote it, can visualize what it describes. Most management writers, including Drucker, Hamel, Collins, and others point out that effective vision statements are vivid and specific.

An effective vision statement will provide a vivid description of the business in the future. It will use vibrant and exciting images to convey what it will be like highlighting the organization’s purpose and its impact on the market, customers and employees.

If you’ve developed a clear vision, you’ll have ready answers to such questions as:

  • Where are we headed?
  • What are we working to achieve?
  • Why is that important to us?
  • How does that make sense in our competitive situation?
  • How does it build upon our core strengths?
  • What will be different in our industry when we achieve the vision?
  • How will our organization be different?
  • How will our customers react?
  • What’s in it for employees?

As a young consultant in Chicago with a large global consulting firm, I had the opportunity to meet in a small group of new consultants with the chairman of the firm in the Philadelphia headquarters. I’ll never forget how he described why the firm existed, how it added value to client businesses, and his vision of the firm’s growth and position in the future. It was motivating and stimulating. It connected me to the firm in a way I hadn’t been connected before. It enabled me to ‘see’ the firm in the future and made me feel proud to be a part of it -- a feeling I couldn’t get from day-to-day consulting work.

What if the future is unclear? There are businesses and industries where there is so much change and competition is fierce, and it’s very difficult to cast a vision – even three years out. In those cases, the important strategic focus needs to be on identifying opportunities and being able to move on them quickly. That then becomes the mission – an organization with superior capabilities to monitor the environment, assess opportunities, and building a responsive, capable organization.

How to create an effective vision Envisioning the organization’s future and capturing it in a compelling vision statement requires both strategic and disciplined thinking.

Here are seven tips for crafting a good vision statement:

  1. This is a leader-led process. Crafting a vision is a key part of strategy formulation, not an administrative exercise or a result of consensus. The leader will need to lead the thinking and make key decisions, but use group input for refinement. Often a consultant can help by facilitating the session(s) so the leader can fully participate without having to keep momentum and ensure participation by everyone.
  2. A vision is a mental picture. Make it be specific, not generic or vague. Paint as clear a picture as you can of the vision so that the organization truly “sees” it and is excited by it.
  3. Strategic thinking is required. The primary focus should be in the future and external to the organization – what will be the organization’s impact on its markets and customers? How will it be different and unique? This is not an extrapolation of the current situation, but rather new thinking about the future. It may be difficult for some people to make the shift from internal/today thinking to external/future thinking. And it may also be difficult for participants who have been in the industry for a long time to open-up to new possibilities, but that is what a vision is all about. Some exercises can be very helpful to get the group to shift their thinking. A scenario approach can be valuable. Unless the leader already has a clear vision, it may be difficult knowing where to start. A guided process of identifying and evaluating alternative scenarios is most effective. This is not an exercise in word-smithing. When groups try to put a vision into one sentence, they’ll get hung-up on choosing words, and the result is usually too generic to be meaningful to others. If you find that you’re agonizing over which words to use, then you’re working too hard. The words should flow. If they don’t, you may be missing the point altogether. Use as many words as it takes to capture the vision. You can identify the themes and edit it later for best communication. Does it pass the “So what?” test? Is your vision meaningful and vivid? Does it describe a future that is meaningful? It doesn’t have to be about dominating an industry, but it does have to be significant and challenging and desirable to your organization. Does it pass the “exciting and energizing” test. Put yourself in the place of front-line employees. Do you understand it, or is it filled with business jargon? Does it excite you? Does it describe a purpose and a future you can identify with, one that you want to tell your spouse and neighbors about?