Vision Decisions

Every company needs a statement of vision that inspires and establishes a strategic direction. But there's more than one way to discover it

Posted on The Leading Edge: January 7, 2008 12:10 PM

Feeling the pressure to prove they have what former President George H. W. Bush famously termed "the vision thing," they drag their staffs through formal visioning sessions. The resulting empty exercises yield "vision statements" to which employees periodically genuflect, but they have no operative meaning. The net result is anti-inspirational.

The purpose of vision, after all, is to inspire: vision provides motivation through inspiration. As discussed in a previous post, inspiration is one key element of the "why should people get excited about this" dimension of establishing strategic direction (the other is incentives). An effective statement of vision provides an inspiring portrait of what it will look like and feel like to achieve the organization's mission and goals. It crystallizes an emotional connection between employees and the business. Critically, a formal statement of vision is not an end in itself. It is both the product of and a symbol of a process of generating shared understanding and shared commitment among employees.

When shared visioning sessions work, the results can be powerful. My favorite example of a great statement of vision was developed at a unit of Johnson & Johnson that designs, manufactures and markets orthopedic implants, such as artificial hips and knees. The company's statement of vision is "Restoring the Joy of Motion." It's an evocative encapsulation of the values the company creates for people suffering the debilitating pain of severe joint disease. It brings to mind great athletes who can return to competition and grandparents who can play with their grandchildren again. (Disclosure: Johnson & Johnson is a client.)

But there are instances, and lots of them, when formal shared visioning is better avoided. It could be that the organization is simply not an intrinsically inspiring place. Or it could be that the timing is wrong. Don't try one when a business is in the midst of a painful restructuring, or when you are planning to make major changes in your team.

Then there are the situations where you are leading a part of a larger organization that already has a vision statement. Here it rarely makes sense to create a separate vision statement for your own unit because layers of vision statements rarely add up to something that inspires. You can decide not to create a shared statement of vision and still be a good leader (this is heresy, I know). After all, when visioning is an empty exercise it fools no one.

Also there is much you can do to inspire the people who work for you without trying to formalize it in a vision statement. You do this by living the vision and values that you believe in. Think of it as creating a vision-in-action. My favorite example of this is Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines. So far as I can tell, Southwest has no formal vision statement. But would anyone argue that Kelleher isn't a visionary and inspiring leader?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.