“A vision helps to inspire and capture aspiration and assist people in overcoming the inherent incohesion associated in moving away from the familiar.”
So wrote Benjamin and Rosamund Stone Zander in their excellent book The Art of Possibility. Yet, most organizations’ vision statements do the exact opposite, leaving staff bereft of any kind of inspiration that could produce positive results.
To be clear (because it’s often hard to keep up with all this vision, values, mission, purpose stuff), a vision should be a short but clear statement of where an organization or team wants to be in the future.
It’s not a statement of your beliefs, what you exist to do, or the role that the organization or department exists to fill. It’s a picture of the future that people find exciting (yes, exciting!), and that becomes a key motivator for hiring, prioritizing work, and targeting achievement.
The attributes of a great vision statement
For starters, the vision should be achievable, but only just.
Saying that you want to be the world’s best HR team is nice, but completely unachievable, because how will you ever know if you get there? Unless every HR team is using the same criteria to measure its performance and then making it public to the same organization that shares the scores around the world, you’ll never know. It will become an unrealized dream for everyone involved.
The vision should be just out of immediate reach. In order to achieve it, everyone will need to bring his or her best self to work every day, continually challenge the status quo, and provide a great employee and customer experience, such that it can be reset the following year.
Achievability is just one attribute of a great vision statement. Let’s look at some others.
Visions are owned by the culture and inform decisions
The vision, and this is absolutely crucial, should be created by the people that “own” the culture, i.e., the staff. Not the executive team, not consultants, not branding experts, but the very people who you are expecting to live it out daily. Many organizations will label this as too hard, when (speaking as someone who runs this exercise with teams all the time) it takes 45-60 minutes. It can entail writing single, aspirational words on post-it notes that are then pieced together to form a short motivational sentence.
A vision is much easier to practice on a daily basis if it’s created by the people that have to live it in the first place. When done well, it will be used frequently. When looking to start new work or decide whether something is still relevant, the question should always be asked, “Does this align with the vision?” If it doesn’t, then it should be abandoned.
The shorter, the better
Living the vision daily requires it to be memorable. This means a vision must be short in length and free of the business buzzwords that many organizations seem to enjoy regurgitating.
As in: “To be the most efficient and effective engineering organization delivering agility and value through collaboration and innovation to customers around the world.”
Ugh. That’s not visionary in the slightest, yet this is the reality. For most, crafting a vision statement is seen as something to be ticked off, rather than a mechanism for inspiration.
You should be aiming for four to six words, recognizing that less is more. Three words? Great! Two? Even better. One of my all-time favorite vision statements was that of the Walt Disney Company, “Make People Happy.”
Is it just a little bit out of reach? (Tick) Is it aspirational? (Tick) Is it memorable? (Tick) Can any member of staff draw a straight line from the vision to the job that they do? (Err, yes. Tick)
But then Disney went and changed its vision to this: “To be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.” I mean, it’s not wrong, it’s just a bit, well, un-Disney.
Other favorites of mine include Harley Davidson’s “Fulfilling dreams of personal freedom” and Lego’s “Inventing the future of play.”
Visions exist everywhere
One way to help with this exercise is to ensure that every subculture within the organization has its own vision statement that lines up with that of the organization. HR, IT, Engineering, Retail, whatever, should all have their own cultural definition so that they can contribute to the overall vibrancy of the organization’s culture. A key component of which is the vision statement.
Creating a short, memorable, and achievable vision statement is not a senior-management only exercise required for the annual report. It’s a critical task that all members of any culture should be involved in to provide inspiration and to help individuals see the way to future success.