There is a Japanese proverb (that is often associated with Soichiro Honda, the Founder of Honda Motor Company) that says, ‘Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.’
The inference is as follows; sure, it’s nice to have aspiration, but if you don’t do anything in line with that, well, you’ll never get there. Oh, and just doing stuff without knowing where you’re headed is even worse!
All of which, of course, is true.
Good intent, useless vision statements
However, the biggest issue that I see is not that organisations don’t have vision statements. It’s just that, well, they’re not very good. Now don’t get me wrong here. The intent is often good and – from time to time – staff are actually involved in the process of creating them. It’s just that at some stage their importance is forgotten and they either become mission statements, overly long paragraphs or else statements of a future that can never be achieved.
At which point they lose their impact and drain morale. It doesn’t have to be that way. So what is a vision and how does it fit in with the other statements you can make about your organisation?
Vision: This is a short but clear ‘picture’ of what the future looks like. ‘This is what we want to become.’
Mission: This is the reason why the company or department was created. ‘This is what we do.’
Purpose: This is the role that the organisation or department exists to fulfil. ‘This is our intention in the world.’
Values: These are belief statements on which the culture is based. ‘These are our emotional principles.’
Of these four, the vision and the values are the most important. The vision provides direction for strategy and ultimately the work that’s undertaken on a day-to-day basis, while the values determine ‘how’ the work is done.
The vision statement should express in a clear, transparent and unambiguous (short, 4-6 word) sentence where the organisation wants to be in the short to medium term. Importantly, the vision should feel just a little out of reach. From the vision, an organisation sets its strategy and from its strategy it sets its goals (that is, the measures of how they’ll progress towards vision achievement).
When the strategy is delivered (through a mix of business as usual and programs/projects) then the vision will be achieved. At that point, the vision should be refreshed and a new strategy created.
Delivering measurable vision statements
This is the cycle of business (granted, there’s a bit more to it than that!) but it highlights the critical role that the vision plays in not only generating excitement about a future state but in ensuring that only work that contributes to it is undertaken.
If it’s too grand or not wholly within the control of the people within the organisation then rather than feeling aspirational, it will act as a demotivator to those working within the culture as they simply won’t buy into it. A vision statement of ‘Enabling the success of our people’ will beat ‘To be the best HR team in the world’ every single day. The first can be measured, the second can’t.
This realism is critically important. It’s usually impossible for a department to go from dead last in sales to first within a year, so a better vision would be to set a goal to target an improved position within the tier.
Once set, the vision statement should inform every decision, with senior managers continually asking themselves the following questions:
- Does the vision statement act as a motivator for staff and the subcultures they work within?
- Does the activity we undertake each day align with the vision?
- Does the individual we are looking to hire demonstrate the values we expect and improve our chances of achieving the vision?
- Will this project provide the outcomes to improve our chances of achieving the vision?
- Is the vision still achievable?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then activity should pause while its importance is assessed alongside other similar initiatives, or the vision statement should be revisited to ensure that it’s continually fit for purpose.
A vision statement is not a tick-box exercise designed to please shareholders, stakeholders or the public. It’s not a marketing statement, a long-winded call to arms or a string of buzzwords. It should never read like a Hallmark card. It has a crucial role in generating excitement and providing a basis for decision-making. And it needs to be achievable, otherwise it is simply a sentence to nowhere.
Colin D Ellis is the author of The Hybrid Handbook: How to Set Yourself Up for the Future of Work and helps organisations around the world to transform their working cultures. Get in touch with him via his website to take your business to the next level.