The vision for any business should be an essential tool. But because a 'vision' is so open to different interpretations in the world of business, it has become a vague term – often ending up as a tick box statement for everything from the documentation of your strategy to employee comms.
A vision should be a powerful expression of identity and intention that leaders can motivate employees with and that communicators and marketeers can use to convince customers and stakeholders beyond the numbers and immediate facts in their pitch.
A strong vision should be vision-ary - simple, visual and inspiring (emotionally and rationally). A classic example from another sphere is: ‘On my signal, unleash hell’, the command to legionaries in the opening battle of the film Gladiator. It is vivid and sets a clear intention, rather than being: ‘Today we face an unprecedented challenge on the frontier of our empire. Hold the centre and advance on the flanks…’.
An evocative vision is a powerful branding ingredient, because at some level anyone who wants to do business with you (customer, partner, employee) wants to know who you are and what’s important to you. Behind every strong brand is a strong vision.
Seeing through the clouds
In practice many businesses visions are uninspiring, worn down by bureaucratic development processes and approvals, rather than being owned and led by the senior leadership. It should answer the ‘Where are we going?’ question in a way that brings the future to life, rather than being a prosaic sentence like: ‘Our vision is to be the first choice widget-related services provider in all major global markets’.
There may be a bold ambition lurking behind this vision in the mind of senior managers, but the bold-ness has not come out in its expression.
Creating a rich vision
A vision that brings out the bold-ness and drive of a business should have three characteristics:
- Aspirational - is it aspirational to both the business and the people it wants to connect with (employees, customers, stakeholders) and relate to?
- Purpose-ful - does it reflect the business’s purpose / its reason why?
- Differentiating - Does it play to the business’s competitive advantages and differentiate it from competitors for its customers, employees and investors?
Once again with meaning
Expressing a business’s purpose, explaining ‘What are we here for?’ – or your ‘Why?’ as Simon Sinek puts it in his book ’Start with why’ – is challenging. Purpose can come from a business founder and some have expressed them very nicely:
Steve Jobs wanted to ‘put a ding in the universe’, and in a very different way and time Johnson and Johnson wrote its credo over seventy years ago, which starts “our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses, patients, mothers and fathers who use our products…’
Without getting too profound and anthropological, the reason focusing on and expressing a business’s purpose works, is that we humans seek meaning in our lives, in what we do, in the choices we make and in the commitments we make. People want to know the Why? and identify with it, which is why when visions with purpose resonate with people its not through an elegantly crafted paragraph of vision statement copy - it is through the stories and sharing the values that flow from it.
Anecdotally, a couple of years ago, Ellen Kullman, then CEO of DuPont, put her finger on this, saying to the FT: “We had a vision and a mission and nobody understood what they were”, but had found she had got far closer when she asked an employee on the production line making Kevlar, the fibre used in bulletproof vests, what he was doing, and got the answer “we’re saving lives”.
Finding a vision with purpose
The key to finding a vision with purpose and meaning that resonates with people inside and outside a business is not to accept the early solutions - interrogate them, keep simplifying and re-expressing them. Even Steve Jobs evolved his - originally talking about a dent, rather than a ding.
When helping clients develop their vision we use a combinations of three approaches:
- Work with senior leaders and ask foundational questions to get to a rich set of ingredients for the vision
What’s your ambition for the business?
What does success look like in two / three / four / five… years time?
What does the future look like?
What future do you ‘believe’ in?
…And what is the role of your business in it?
- Keep asking why to get to the essence of what’s important to the business, what they are here for, and if they have a vision to get beyond statements like ‘we want to be the market leader in premium sector of…’.
- Think about the vision as a story in miniature, rather than a statement. Working with stakeholders asking them to tell brief stories using the ingredients for the vision they’ve identified can be revealing. Try asking them to imagine they are explaining the vision or purpose to a potential employee or even their grandparents.
Ultimately a vision works when it becomes part of the fabric of the organisation, rather than a locked-down statement that feels like a museum piece or a CEO soundbite. A successful vision should be a reference point everyone uses in everyday conversations and activities, from talking informally to a customer to a team setting priorities.