The main emotional drivers of organizations are fear and hope. Fear is kept under control through the management of risk. Hope is embodied and managed via a shared vision.☭ The vast majority of the management activities (as opposed to the manufacturing or service delivery activities) in any organization are derived from this dyad, although fear and hope are frequently more implicit than explicit underpinners of management strategies.
In service management, for example, change management controls the risks associated with changes. Information security management controls the availability, integrity, confidentiality and authentication risks related to information. Continuity management controls the risks of the unexpected and the catastrophic. Practically every service management discipline has an aspect of risk control.
In contrast, many organizations do little or nothing to manage their visions. The hopelessness that characterizes so many company employees may be due less to being a wage slave and more to working in an organization that has no more idea of why it exists than to make money, or because it is an “institution”, hoary or respected. The organization is as it is, because it seems to have always been that way. Think of those large businesses that flounder about and split themselves in two every twenty years, largely because they cannot articulate why they exist as an organization.
The imbalance between vision management and risk management is astonishing. At best risk management can reduce losses, whereas vision management can multiply revenues. Without those revenues, risk management would have little to protect.
You may object that management by objectives is a form of management of vision and that this Druckerian practice is very widespread. I humbly disagree with the former assertion, no matter the truth of the latter. There are two reasons for my objection, based on theory and on practice. In practice, I find it very rare that management objectives are derived from organizational vision. In spite of the plea for a balanced scorecard of objectives, in my experience the vast majority of objectives—in any case, the objectives that lead to rewards—are concerned with getting more revenue or reducing costs. As we will see below, improving the profit and loss statement could be a goal, but it is certainly not a vision. Is there any gainful business that does not seek to increase profit? A vision helps an organization to be distinctive; a goal such as increasing profits does not.
The objectives mentioned above do nothing, in and of themselves, to make employees hopeful. If anything, they create stress, they depress, they create imbalance in life. How can a salesperson sell more if he or she is already working long hours and working with conscientiousness and diligence? How can a system administrator help cut costs and still be expected to raise quality, handle more complexity and mask the fear of losing one’s job? Not only is fixing personal or team objectives more a source of fear than of hope, our risk control activities do little to palliate that type of fear.
If we are to have any hope of understanding how to manage a vision, we shall have to understand better what makes for a good vision.
Vision statements (of a sort) are common
It is a commonplace that organizations should have vision statements. However, the statements we commonly see often focus on only one type of relationship between the organization and a single class of stakeholders. Some vision statements are designed to get venture capitalists to fund a start-up. Others intend to make the organization attractive to a prospective customer. And yet others try to shape the attitudes of the organization’s members or employees.
Thus, a vision serves not only to focus hope. It is also a sort of call to action. The difficulty of a vision statement that focuses on only one type of stakeholder is that is does nothing for the other types of stakeholders—except, perhaps, to make them feel ignored or depreciated.
Visions and goals
A vision statement is quite a different animal from the statement of a goal. While it might be usual for people to think that fixing a goal is an important way to getting onto the path toward achieving that goal, setting a goal is a fundamentally negative way to motivate people. Why do I make this anti-intuitive assertion? Setting a goal also defines a gap, something that is missing from the as-is situation. It highlights the current, negative state of affairs, as much as it points to a different future.
Think of statements along the lines of “we want to be the best…” or “we want a gazillion dollars in revenue”. Their mere enunciation implies that we are not the best—someone else is best—or that we simply do not have enough revenue today. Such statements can easily be the source of anxiety and lead people to think more about the current lacks rather than about a rosy future. In psychological terms, a goal statement risks being a negative emotional attractor, rather than a positive emotional attractor. A goal can be a two-edged sword. It is bidirectional.
A vision statement, on the other hand, is not so much a sword as a light. It is both a beacon that draws us toward it and a headlight that illuminates the path before us. A vision should be an enduring source of motivation. It concerns only the future, with nary a whisper about the inadequate present or past. It should help to build or to restore the energy we need to move in the direction of that vision.
Finding the right poetry
Certain styles of vision statements are probably ineffective. Most employees would probably agree that they want to work somewhere that is “a great place to work”. But simply saying that the vision is to be “a great place to work” will not make it so. If, instead, the vision includes the development of the full potential of all employees, then the fulfilled employees are likely to agree that the goal of being a great place to work as been attained.
Similarly, simply saying that you want to be number one in your sector is rather senseless. Would you fix a vision of being number three, or number 17? When a company proclaims that it is Number Two, it is saying that no matter how hard it tries, it will stay Number Two (at best). When the so-called “vision” is to be top dog, it is really a statement of a goal.
Some so-called vision statements, which make comparisons with other organizations, risk becoming a sort of litotes. I am reminded of a byword of the 1970s “a woman who wants to be the equal of a man has no ambition.” Defining oneself relative to someone else seems to imply that you will always be in the other’s shadow. Hardly very motivating, is it?
Some vision statements are so grandiose and general as to be largely meaningless. Who would have thought that “To be the company that best understands and satisfies the product, service and self-fulfillment needs of women—globally” would be the vision statement of a cosmetics manufacturer? And statements that are too specific might be too constraining. I know of many children who were terrified by the films of a company whose vision is “to make people happy.”
Crafting a vision
So, crafting a vision statement is fraught with danger. It is not a trivial exercise. How should we go about defining a vision statement and what should it say?
An organizational vision should have certain characteristics. It should be a shared vision. It should be a vision of the idealized organization. It is oriented toward the future. And it probably needs to change from time to time.
In a new organization, the vision—assuming one has been articulated—can only be the reflection of the founders’ aspirations. At its origin, the vision might derive from a single person’s hopes, which serve as a filter to identify the early collaborators of the organization. That vision might also be imposed on others via the charisma of the founder. But I would suggest that personal charisma cannot replace a shared vision. Obviously, the charismatic leader will one day go away (in spite of the fact that they, like bad pennies, sometimes turn up again). A collective vision, on the other hand, will disappear only when the collectivity disappears. So, from the earliest phases of an organization, each stakeholder needs to participate in shaping that vision. Why? For the simple reason that each stakeholder should be a beneficiary of that vision. While Johnny Appleseed may have planted thousands of apple seedlings, it was the orchard owners who cultivated, pruned and protected those trees, to realize the promise of abundant harvests of delicious and healthy apples. Johnny’s vision was enabled because it was shared.
A mature organization faces the issue of an evolving vision, too, but multiplied in complexity by the size of that organization. I do not believe that the wisdom of crowds is applicable for redeveloping a vision statement. However, the crowd will certainly take part in validating the vision statement. Call me an elitist if you will, but I prefer the poetry of a silver-tongued orator to the doggerel of the masses.
Here is how I see the process. The natural leaders in the organization (and I mean leaders, not necessarily the people with hierarchical authority) will collectively identify the key messages that a vision statement should transmit. The company poet will then shape those messages into an artful text that can be broadly understood, easily recognized, difficult to lampoon and will stir the emotions of the stakeholders. Those same leaders will then take that text to the stakeholders to ensure that it resonates with them. You do have a company poet, don’t you?
Communicating the vision
As Dr. Strangelove protested, it is useless to create a Doomsday machine unless you inform your enemy of it. And so it is for visions. A vision is not a secret weapon. It’s power to motivate, to have an impact on every stakeholder, every working day, depends on its being infused into the core of all the organization’s activities.
Once validated, the vision is officialized and communicated. It should become part of the normal discourse of the organization. No top level presentation about the strategies, goals and generally situation of the organization is without that vision. The vision is regularly evoked as a way to motivate people and decisions. All stakeholders know, understand and can communicate the vision.
The contents of a vision statement
So much for the when and the how of a vision. What about its contents? A vision should tread the narrow path between a utopian view that is clearly beyond all possibility of achievement and a short to medium term objective that smacks of the nitty-gritty of our daily routines. A vision is not intended to be a compromise between what we might want to achieve and what we think is realistic, given what we know today. No, a vision understands that today’s truth may become tomorrow’s fiction. It is said that the Rolling Stones have lasted so much longer than the Beatles because the vision of the former group is to play good music together, whereas the vision of the latter group was the play innovative music. What was bright and new in the early 1970s soon became old hat.
The vision of an organization should be as stable as it needs to be. But it is likely to need reworking every five to seven years, in line with the periodic reassessments that every person makes about his or her life.
The long and the short of it
A long and involved explanation of a vision might have the virtue of clarity, but it would be hard to remember and difficult to reinterpret from person to person and as the environment changes. So, a vision statement should be relatively short. It might be sweet and decorous to have a vision that is condensed into a single phrase, but it is not for everyone to sit at the feet of Euterpe. A vision of up to three parts is probably acceptable, but anything more complicated than that verges on the cumbersome.
Beyond the vision statement
It should not be forgotten, in this age of sound bites and 140 character messages, that human history is dominated by forms of communication noted for their length rather than their brevity. While I am not suggesting that a company have its own saga or epic, narrative plays an important role as the glue that holds people together with a shared vision. The mythical narratives about the foundation of the organization are of abiding interest. The tales of how important decisions were taken animate informal discussions among employees.
Other forms could conceivably play a role in developing and spreading a shared vision, albeit they are not currently in favor. At one time, companies had inspirational songs, just as countries have their anthems. Lyric poetry has not its equal for capturing the imagination in a memorable way. The fact that such forms are now considered to be superannuated rather than venerable, only means that they are waiting in the wings for clever and innovative leaders to exploit.
Some inspirational terms
In order to help craft a vision, I propose a set of terms to help position your potential vision statement in the right place between a goal and a complete fantasy.
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘t would win me
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
and close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
☭The inverse is, of course, also possible. Unfounded hope may be a source of risk, just as unstayed fear may deform the vision.