Are you troubled by visions?

Posted by on Nov 23, 2011

Visioning: Timing, Involvement and Format are Critical

Several of our clients have confided recently that they are troubled by “visions”. But before you reach for that long-sleeved canvas jacket, note that they’re talking about vision statements! Common concerns we’ve heard include whether having a vision statement is important or, for those who already have one, whether it’s actually helping.

Almost any organization would benefit with the introduction of a clear, compelling vision that convincingly summarizes leaders’ aspirations and infuses employees with a renewed sense of purpose. Creating a vision statement that raises everyone’s expectations and performance is a tall order. But if your vision statement doesn’t elevate commitment and effort to higher levels, what good is it?

After helping many organizations to create vision statements, we’re struck by how carefully the process must be managed to keep it on track. Many visioning exercises consume inordinate amounts of time only to fall far short of sparking better performance. In this article, we’ll explain the most common problems we’ve encountered in visioning – problems with timing, involvement, and format – and offer tips to help you avoid them.

Timing

Starting a visioning exercise at the wrong time is almost a sure-fire recipe for failure. If you’ve tried visioning while overloaded or in crisis, you’ll appreciate how hard it is to “dream big” when you’re living a nightmare! As one manager in a troubled organization said about senior management’s new vision, “It looks like a wonderful place, but we can’t get there from here”.

The timing of a visioning process matters, even when things are going smoothly. Many clients ask to add visioning to their strategic planning agenda, but we recommend against it. Strategic planning is a rigorous, logical and analytical process. Being realistic is often participants’ highest planning priority since each of them will carry responsibility for delivering results on a time-line. Visioning, on the other hand, is a creative, expansive, optimistic and dream-nurturing process. The rigorous realism of strategic planning is a poor fit with the expansive optimism of visioning, and most teams find it difficult to shift between these mind-sets in the same meeting. When strategic planning and visioning are attempted concurrently, one of them is likely to suffer.

Finally, your senior team will strongly influence the outcome of a visioning exercise. If they are satisfied or complacent about current performance, the status quo is the de facto vision, no matter how ambitious other participants may be! Unless your senior team is strongly motivated to create a brighter future for the organization, visioning is likely to be a pointless exercise.

Involvement

It’s important to build support for a new vision by drawing input from across the organization, but be careful to involve suitable people in the right roles. The part of your vision statement devoted to values is a good subject for input from a broad range of organizational members. But be selective when deciding whom to involve in setting a visionary goal. This goal must embody boldness as well as believability before it will move people to make significant changes. The ideas for this must come from your visioning team – their challenge will be to blend ambitious ideas with astute judgment about what is possible far in the future.

Visioning requires at least a few participants who are both visionary and judicious! Make sure your team has the right people to meet this challenge. While many aspects of visioning require broad involvement, writing the final statement is not one of them! If you expect your vision statement to inspire people in ways that stretch their expectations, aspirations and performance, it must be artfully written – a task that is beyond the capability of virtually any large team. Excellent writing skills are uncommon, but are essential for effective visioning. The visioning team should include at least one writer who can meld the team’s ideas into succinct and eloquent language.

Format

While most teams readily agree on the criteria for common terms like “objectives”, we’ve seen visioning processes stumble over differing views about the “right” format and content of the resulting statement. For example, one team got deadlocked over whether their vision should be “short and punchy” like Nike’s just do it(1) slogan, or a longer, content-rich version like the Built to Last formula(2). This is not a trivial choice, and there’s no “correct” length. A long vision won’t inspire anyone who finds it boring, but if it’s too short, it won’t provide a clear purpose and direction.

Another common conundrum for visioning is choosing the time horizon. Many feel more comfortable creating a vision that is intended to be reached in 5 to 7 years; others advocate a much longer view, arguing it is impossible to get airborne from a runway that is too short. Selecting a shorter time horizon tends to reduce people’s willingness to commit to ambitious undertakings. For example, we wonder whether Bill Gates would have aspired in 1975 to equip every business and household with a computer if it had to be achieved in only 5 to 7 years. It is generally better to begin a visioning process with a longer time horizon in mind to avoid imposing an arbitrary constraint on the outcome. If the visioning team sets a goal that is achievable in a shorter period, the time horizon can be shortened accordingly.

Without prior agreement on the length, content and time horizon of the statement, a visioning exercise will probably take longer and produce an inferior outcome.

Tips for Successful Visioning

Follow these tips to increase the likelihood of success in creating or modifying your vision statement.

• Choose your timing well – not during a crisis or overload, and not during strategic planning. Teams don’t usually agree on ambitious visions unless they’re feeling confident and successful, and combining visioning with analytical tasks is likely to stifle optimism and creative thinking.

• Choose carefully who will be involved at which steps. You’ll need broad involvement, which is relatively easy to arrange, and visionary thinking, which is not. And you’ll need one or two people with strong writing skills to convert ideas into coherent statements and polish drafts between meetings.

Make sure you have a good reason to create a vision statement. If the executive team doesn’t feel a gap between their aspirations and current reality, they aren’t ready for visioning. And you may not need an “official” vision statement if your strategic plan already has ambitious growth built into it. A commitment to become the dominant player in your competitive space, for example, may keep your company focused and striving for many years.

• Don’t start without first setting format guidelines including the length, content and time horizon of your statement. You may decide to vary from these guidelines as you proceed, but stick with your original format until you’re convinced a change is needed.

• Our clients become skilled at updating and evolving strategic plans, but the same can’t be said for visioning. Most undertake visioning so seldom that they underestimate how different the two processes are. The hard-headed realism that serves strategic planning so well generally makes visioning far too conservative. If you’re about to embark on a visioning process to create a bright new future for your organization, consider retaining external help to maximize your chances that your new vision will raise everyone’s expectations and performance.

Embarking on a visioning exercise does not guarantee success, and since it raises people’s expectations, failure to reach a satisfying conclusion is likely to be discouraging to everyone involved. Choosing your timing, format and participants wisely will help you achieve a better result.

© 2007 Knowlan Consulting Group Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication or publication in any form, in whole or in part, is prohibited.

1. Nike’s “Just Do It” was never intended as a vision statement.
2. “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies”; James C.
Collins, Jerry I. Porras, 1994.

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