Regardless of their size, most companies today make the effort to articulate a vision statement. The reason is simple: effective executives and managers recognize that a clear, engaging vision is key for building alignment around an organization’s goals and in guiding behaviours and decisions to reach them.
We believe that creating an inspired vision is key to lasting and transformative leadership. After all, leaders need to:
1. know where they are going;
2. be able to articulate where they are going to those they are leading; and
3. have those people want to join them on the journey.
Companies can choose from a number of methods to engage in a vision creation exercise. These approaches are scattered on a spectrum of top-down to bottom-up approaches. A couple of recent experiences at each end of this spectrum have provided us with an opportunity to reflect on the efficacy of different approaches. If the goal of having a vision is building alignment and guiding behaviour, we believe some approaches are better than others.
Vision creation as a process or a deliverable?
When it comes to creating or changing an organization’s vision, decision makers tend to take one of two approaches. Some approach it as a task that needs accomplishing, yielding a concrete product that can then be diffused through the organization. The underlying belief here is that the articulation of a vision is enough to make individuals start moving towards said vision. This approach can be summarized as vision creation from the top, or vision as a deliverable. In contrast, others view the visioning exercise as a process by which the organization creates a vision as a collective. In this approach, the whole organization has a voice in shaping the final vision, and time is given to assess the implications and the opportunity to embody where it now intends to go.
In our experience, approaching vision as a deliverable creates a false efficiency. Having a select group of high-ranking executives devise a vision for an entire organization might expedite the outcome and may even strengthen this group’s alignment to the vision statement. However, the false efficiency in this approach comes from the significant cost it incurs: it excludes those who will actually be tasked with executing the vision. Rather than appropriating the vision as their own, the rest of the employee base must now be told about it, and hopefully they will understand it, believe in it, and act upon it.
Here’s an example that eloquently illustrates the pitfalls of approaching vision creation as a deliverable. One company we know of embarked on a vision exercise and involved only its senior executives. The company’s communication department created wonderful messaging and supporting materials around the newly crafted vision. These were then distributed to managers at all levels to explain to the employee base. At the time, the company’s operations were undergoing a number of changes to help improve profitability and the new vision was meant to help achieve this goal. Six months into the process, the VP Operations informally asked a variety of managers and employees about the new vision to see if it was helpful in providing them with direction. Most of those asked had trouble describing what the vision meant to them, if they could remember the vision at all. Even more alarmingly, they all referred to the changes as simply a cost-cutting exercise. Many said that they were looking forward to getting through this and back to normal.
Inviting the organization into the conversation
Those who view the creation of a vision as a process towards alignment tend to take a longer, but much more rewarding path. That path starts with bringing people together in conversation about the vision.
There are many articles written by leading researchers supporting the involvement of people in setting organizational direction. One that we are drawn to is the Fair Process framework. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne illustrate the effectiveness of involvement in in their research on Fair Process. They explain how providing engagement, expectation and explanation clarity have soon to provide above average results in the execution of strategy. Involving people in decisions (engagement clarity), like the vision for a company, is a core aspect of their model.
We have recently witnessed a powerful example of this. Using a World Café format, a company was able to involve almost all of their employees in a series of conversations about their vision. The senior team structured the process by providing some starting points for the conversation and elicited boundaries of what the vision could be to keep the discussion focused. Then in groups of 50 participants, employees and decision makers from across the company were involved in a series of 2 hour conversations about the vision. Through the World Café method, each of the participants in this process were able to express where the company should go and to make a case for the best avenue to get there. Each idea put forward could then be explored and built upon. The conversations were wrapped up through harvesting the different perspectives, ideas and questions about the vision that were generated. The harvested thoughts from each World Café session were then combined and presented to the senior leadership.
Upon reviewing what had been presented, the CEO and his team found this process had yielded two important outcomes:
1. Elements of what participants believed should be in the vision were quite aligned with what the senior leadership saw for the organization.
2. The conversations had generated a wealth of ideas about what the organization needed to change about itself in terms of structure, compensation policies and training to achieve its vision.
This was important learning for the senior leadership team.
Armed with this knowledge and the harvested ideas, the senior team was then able create a vision statement grounded and aligned with beliefs and aspirations shared across the organization.
Bring your vision to life
The next part of the process is preparing leaders in the organization to be able to connect with their teams in a meaningful way. Equipping leaders throughout the company with the communication tools to such that when they go out and talk about the vision of the company their teammates not only connect to that vision but to the leader delivering the message. A great number of people find it challenging to communicate effectively and in a way that builds connections with others. In fact, effective communication usually appears at the top of the list of salient needs in most of the leadership gap analyses we conduct.
All too often, the leaders of an organization are simply emailed a PowerPoint slide deck containing key messages and are asked to then present it to their teams. Rather than creating an opportunity for genuine engagement, we believe this leads to people feeling forced to sit through a frequently boring event, wondering why they were not themselves just sent the presentation for review. In our experience, while expedient, this type of communication is part of the false efficiency: employees fail to create the connection to a new company vision when it is communicated in this way. If they don’t connect with it, it is hard for them to execute on it.
In our earlier example, the company that decided to involve its workforce in the vision creation process, realized that to achieve a successful roll-out of its newly minted vision, leaders and managers across the organization would need to be effective at connecting their teams with the vision. To support this, space was created for leaders to customize their message for their team and to practice. A few afternoon workshops were held by the senior team where they coached each other on how they thought their proposed message connected with its target audience. Through this practice they improved their message and their skills at connecting with their teams. The executives then followed the same process with other leaders to ensure that core messages were shared. As a result of this practice, most managers reported feeling well prepared to connect the vision to their teams.
There is one final, key ingredient to cementing this sort of change: a deliberate and comprehensive development program to support the execution of the new vision. Leaders must learn how to operate and lead effectively in the new organization created by the vision. For example, in the 90s, IBM moved away from being primarily a hardware company to becoming a services-based company. As a result, the entire leadership of the firm needed to learn how to operate in a very different market, with different types of employees and different goals. This, in turn, required an overhaul of the workforce’s skills, without which IBM would not have been successful in transitioning into and achieving its new vision.
In the end
A company that views vision creation as a leadership process not solely a deliverable are much more likely to gain the benefits that a vision is meant to give you in the first place – alignment around where you want to go as a company. After all isn’t that what being a leader starts with?
Call to Action
Go out and talk to people across your organization.
- Are they aware of your organization’s vision and values?
- Do they and you believe that it fits with where they are going? Does it fit where the market is going?
- Do you need to have conversation about a new vision?
- How might you involve people in that conversation?