Unsustainable Visions are the Only Good Ones: How Fear Prevents Clear Strategic Direction
Quick – tell me your company’s vision statement. Chances are, if you have one, it’s probably something like, “Be the greatest X in the world” or, “Satisfy our consumers, shareholders, and employees with innovative solutions.” Let’s be honest – most vision statements suck. This is because fear of failure keeps leaders from committing to visions that are bold, timely, and ultimately inspiring.
Why Most Vision Statements Fail
Once, I was working with a Fortune 50 client on their customer experience strategy. The current customer experience was lackluster, and their people were actively disengaged. When we began our work, we asked them, “What is your vison for the customer experience of the future?”
All they could tell us was they wanted to be “The greatest.” Ok, maybe we can work with that – after all, “The greatest” is easy to remember, right? Indeed, most employees at this Fortune 50 company could repeat that the vision statement was to be “The greatest.”
This seemed positive, until we started to press into the reality of the strategy. We quickly realized that leaders of various functions were all running in their own directions, with different priorities, and conflicting timelines. While “The greatest” was something people could recite, it wasn’t on their minds day to day, they didn’t connect their strategies and actions to it directly, and they didn’t stop to consider how their actions might impact what was happening in another department. The sum of all their efforts was not adding up.
Because the vision the leaders had put forward was not “real” enough to inspire actionable strategy.
Fortune Favors the Bold: How to Create a Strong Vision Statement
This chaos is not abnormal. In fact, 70% of all employees are misaligned on their company’s strategic direction, and they don’t even realize it. Defining a clear and compelling future state is a key step in our Strategic Change Process, and frankly, most companies do not do it well. One key reason for this is fear: fear to be bold, fear to commit, and fear to put yourself out there as a leader.
Consider these classic words from President Kennedy, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard … And this will be done in the decade of the sixties.”
Imagine you were a leader at NASA during this time. What instantly went through your head likely was, “I have to get a lot of sh*& done before 1969.” And this type of thinking is powerful. By being bold and committing to a real, time-bound goal, Kennedy not only inspired, but also provided a meaningful target around which to build a strategy.
Commit to an Unsustainable Vision, and Strategy Will Follow
It takes courage for a leader to say “by 2022” or “in five years.” But when you do, all sorts of magic happens … and yes, you’re able to create a strong vision statement that resonates!
People begin to ask things like, “What needs to happen in the next year for us to achieve this vision?” “How will we know if we make it?” and “What is my role in this?” When people start to visualize their role in the vision – and how they can make a difference in reaching it – then you know your vision is one that is capable of inspiring people. From here, strategy creation can flow naturally.
While Kennedy’s vision was inherently unsustainable, because it had a specific end point, it still drove people to think strategically and work hard to make it a reality. In today’s world of continuous growth and shareholder value, it’s tempting to succumb to the urge to make everything sound “sustainable” and to avoid a bold vision. Sure, your purpose as an organization should sustain over time, but your vision must be bold if you want it to have an impact.
Three Traits of a Strong Vision
Vision is just a word – and in some organizations it has become toxic from overuse and failed attempts. If that’s the case, don’t use it! Call it your Future State, your Big Goal, your Key Priority, whatever works for your organization.
Regardless of what you call it, to create a strong vision statement/future state/goal/etc. you need to ensure it is:
- Time-bound – “in five years” or “by 2022”
- Inspiring – commit to the moon!
- Achievable – you may not know the details of the journey, but you’re confident your organization can make it
Finding the right combination of these three traits is tough work, and it requires an aligned, high-performing leadership team. Is your organization struggling to find, align on, or communicate direction? Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below and let’s share some experience!