Strategy Implementation: Developing a Compelling Vision

When Olympic gymnasts stand at the beginning of a routine, they visualize how the performance will go. When a pro golfer prepares to hit the ball, he envisions the entire shot -- how the ball will be struck, its flight path, landing and how it will come to rest. When a professional concert musician prepares for a concert, she will play the piece in her head exactly as she wants to perform it. The technique of visualizing the future is a proven way to improve performance in sports.

Visualization is a best practice for business too. It ‘creates’ a future that the organization then strives to achieve. Successful growth firms have always visualized the future they would create. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, George Eastman, and Sam Walton all had clear visions that guided their success. Other success companies including GE, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Proctor & Gamble, Nordstrom, Johnson & Johnson, Merck and many others have had clear vision statements.

A clear vision is a powerful way to engage employees because a vision gives meaning and purpose to the organization’s work. Here’s how to craft a good one.

Galvanize the entire organization around one common focus.
The vision answers the question, “Where are we headed, what will we achieve, and why is it important?” It provides the strategic focus for the organization. It demonstrates that the leader is leading. It gives purpose and meaning to every employee, no matter what their job. It is a reason to believe and an overriding goal to achieve – something to buy into and feel passionate about. The vision includes specific and graphic descriptions of what the corporation will look like, how it will function, what its impact on the world will be. By making it specific and not generic, it becomes more real and more engaging. Example:

Henry Ford: I will build a motor car for the great multitude…. It will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces…. When I’m through, everybody will be able to afford one, and everyone will have one. The horse will have disappeared from our highways, the automobile will be taken for granted…[and we will] give a large number of men employment at good wages.

Organizations without effective vision statements have management teams focused primarily on short-term tasks. They often have conflicting ideas about where the organization is heading, what to base decisions on, and how resources should be allocated. In these organizations the future is unclear and even the organization’s purpose is vague. Too often the focus is on grinding out operational improvements. Departments or divisions are at odds over decision alternatives because they lack common longer-term objectives. A clear vision provides a common focus and destination. It helps clarify decision making to be in line with an overall goal; it gets people on the same page.

A good vision is exciting and energizing People seek meaning in what they do. They want to be a part of an organization that makes a difference, that is unique, growing and vibrant, and that provides the opportunity to continually learn and grow. It’s amazing the impact that an effective vision statement will have on people. It energizes and engages, it provides a sense of pride and dignity that they’ll never get from simply doing routine work day after day.

Why most vision statements don't motivate Unfortunately, many organizations have crafted vision statements that are vague and uninspiring. Because they lack specificity, they are ignored even by the management team that crafted it.

Here’s an example: “We will become the number one supplier of (products/services) for the (XYZ) industry by offering value to our customers, achieving excellence in everything we do, and by looking for opportunities to leverage our talents.”

What’s wrong with it? It’s so pie-in-the-sky that it is meaningless. It doesn’t pass the “So what?” test. It lacks any details so it provides no direction and no specifics. It is passionless so it motivates and excites no one. It is so generic that no employee can see how his/her job connects to it. It sounds like puffed-up sales talk and business jargon.

While statements like this adorn lobbies and conference rooms, they are of no help in formulating strategy, guiding decisions, or providing practical direction. In short, they offer none of the benefits of a good vision.

Don’t confuse priority statements with a vision Jack Welch at General Electric had a number of short statements he used to provide focus and priority in support of the vision and strategy. They included being number one or two in each industry, “speed, simplicity, and self-confidence,” “boundarylessness,” and “workout,” among others. These were not the vision itself, but simply important parts of his vision for GE and were used to emphasize priorities. Welch personally led extensive vision discussions with thousands of GE managers at their Crotonville training facility.

Keep the vision fresh Attaining a vision is a great achievement. Not renewing a vision is a major mistake. Many organizations, once they have achieved their vision will begin to coast believing that the hard work is done. It leads to complacency, a false sense of security, and the feeling that the organization is no longer an exciting place to be.

This has happened to many once fine companies including Kodak, Hewlett Packard, and Ford among others. Even Apple went into decline when its original vision of creating an affordable, easy to use computer was achieved and the company shifted to mature activities such as operational efficiencies and cost-cutting, rather than innovation and continued growth. When the vision is achieved, a new vision must be created to maintain growth and passion. The alternative is certain decline.

What to include in a vision 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?