Vision gets a lot of attention. As with most things, when something is highlighted as being valuable, some organizations just copy-and-paste what is done by another and think their success will just happen. Others will take a concept and embrace it with rigidity. Vision is one of those things.
When we read various vision statements, very different organizations sound the same and still never communicate anything meaningful. Other vision statements can be binding to the degree that any creativity or innovation is sucked out of the organization. Others may just ignore vision all together. After all, isn’t vision just a lot of business school bookwork?
Vision does deliver value if it incites the right action. If vision really creates a visual of what is possible, then people can rally around what they see as real, meaningful, and imaginable.
Is Your Vision Exact or Aspiring?
For me, vision needs to activate, yet many visions just calm one to sleep or stir one to the point of extreme frustration. In the absence of a vision, work is just done within each departmental silo. Drudgery may best describe the latter.
Developing a vision does need to be done within the context in which the organization rests, does business, and engages a community of customers and other stakeholders. How the leadership team views vision and opportunity will drive how it is developed and implemented. For example:
- Is vision viewed as being an exact statement of simple facts or as being an aspirational statement of what the organization wants to build toward?
- Is the opportunity ahead static in nature or changing as the market and new environmental conditions unfold, change, and expand?
These two points set the stage for a two by two matrix.
What Does Your Vision Incite: Feelings or Action?
How a leadership team approaches vision may be the difference between having a growth versus fixed mindset. Taking what Carol Dweck highlighted in her wonderful book Mindset, the difference is between whether the leaders involved have a learning versus non-learning attitude or discovery versus we-always-done-it-this-way view.
What bubbles up from how a vision is constructed really does come down to whether it invokes action or a feeling. Let’s explore.
Exact Vision, Static Opportunity. When the vision language is narrow in focus, we define a space in which we are comfortable. What is said: “We know this market segment thoroughly, why would we venture a peek into something larger?” “Our opportunity is what it is and we just need to do what we know how to do today.” The result is comfort. More likely, the result is control. If the leadership team has a fixed mindset, then the likelihood is they are also the type who want to always be in control.
What the leadership team is creating is a “safe” environment. The reality may be what is created is a declining organization. True, there may be initial growth with the narrow focus but change will happen whether the team wants to acknowledge it or not. And this leads to the next quadrant.
Exact Vision, Changing Opportunity. Several changes always exist and they are change itself and growth. Within this, there are two choices: Do you choose to change? Do you choose to grow? There are people and organizations who choose not to do either, and it is their choice. If others are involved, what begins to happen in these cases is discontent grows.
The vision is too narrow for all that is happening around the organization. People are not stupid. They can see it happen. The lack of purpose and the lack of growth in their work will spark a festering feeling of discontent that will blossom into full frustration. Turnover will result. The vision becomes reality in this case – narrowness creates limitations for organizational and individual growth.
Aspirational Vision, Static Opportunity. Having an engaging vision in a small market may seem constraining. However, an empowering vision is one that will bring out the best problem-solving and innovation capabilities of the people involved.
Selling just books online in 1994 may have felt limiting but the Amazon vision is “To build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” Big vision, small initial place sounds like a place that will just foster frustration. However, quite the opposite unfolded. Innovation, creativity, problem-solving, and a solid growth mindset set the company in motion to move into a larger market and larger growth opportunities.
What happens in this quadrant is an inciting action to “unstick.” The actions and the work done by the various teams is to determine the best ways to always get unstuck and to grow. There are two results that happen here:
- Growth within a defined space (Think 37 Signals)
- Move from this quadrant to the one next door – Aspirational Vision, Changing Opportunity (Think Amazon)
People are engaged. The organization is making an impact. Challenges exist but people are active in the strategy, problem-solving, and implementation work. Many good things happen when people are fully trusted and engaged.
Aspirational Vision, Changing Opportunity. Financial results are essential just as are customer and team member satisfaction and engagement. The right vision brings it all together, if done right. As highlighted in a Harvard Business School Working Knowledge interview with Mark Lipton, author of Guiding Growth: How Vision Keeps Companies on Course:
“Whole Foods Market, for example, does not have a myopic focus on the bottom line or share price, but it is committed to a vision that emphasizes more far-reaching aspirations. They actually want to change a part of the world in which they operate. Even though they don’t obsess over the bottom line, their earnings growth rate is triple that of the industry in which they operate. And their stock price over the past two years has more than doubled.”
Bringing an aspirational vision to life through leadership, trust, culture, and all work of an organization creates real value. This isn’t easy. Quite the opposite. Leading with an engaging vision takes a lot of effort, learning, adapting, creativity, and much more. An aspirational vision plants seeds for the future growth in product, market, personal development, and much more. For me, this sounds like a great place to work and be challenged!
Vision: Empowering Points
A few vital vision points:
- The unknown will always be unknown. This is the beauty of uncertainty, adaptability, and creativity.
- Even with a sound purpose, clarity of actions to take is essential.
- Purpose will set the course, and clear actions will guide the work. Embedded in each needs to be a culture of trust, respect, empathy, integrity, innovation, and principles to make all involved proud and centered.
- Vision must incite action – today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.
Culture Drives Behaviors: Vision-Based Leadership
Vision isn’t the one-stop fix-all for an organization. In many ways, vision is just the beginning. Although implied, behaviors are what will enliven and sustain a vision. A very precise vision will likely drive a constrained culture. An aspirational vision should drive an open, innovative culture. However, if the culture does not match the aspirational vision, then a lot of time has been wasted in developing it and even more time in trying to make it work.
Vision is an essential element to making organizations work in meaningful ways but the work needs to be reinforced through the right cultural aspects. The culture and vision blend:
- Vision activates action but needs to be reinforced with the culture to incite the right behaviors.
- Culture empowers people to create, solve, and grow all the while enabling the organization to achieve, build, and realize the vision of what is possible for customers and stakeholders.
- Vision and culture need to be wrapped together in order to unbind the ability within each team member.
Let me be clear. Absence of an aspirational vision is the absence of leadership. So, craft a vision that incites positive action today and for the future. And then reinforce your inciting vision with an engaging culture.
In your experiences, what has worked or not worked with vision?
Join the Conversation
What Does Your Vision Incite?
So glad I found this article Jon! I’ve been in sales and marketing most of my life and in my role as marketing manager have fine tuned more than a few vision statements, and while I was able to contribute to the growth of those companies, the bottom line was they were established businesses long before I joined them so there was little opportunity to venture outside the lines. Now I find myself in completely the opposite situation. I left the corporate world and became a “solopreneur” and because I had spent my prior lifetime by the rules, I avoided them like the plague in my new life. But still pieces of the puzzle began coming together and the latest piece turned out to be launching my own publishing company. So, it’s time once again to get serious about crafting a vision statement but this time without a history or corporate mandate to guide me. So your article has helped to get me focused. Thanks!
Thanks for sharing your experiences and journey, Marquita! Our life and work paths weave around and we learn from each one. It sounds like the vision you craft for your publishing company will be one that leverages what you have learned as well as the possibilities ahead. All the best! Jon
Loved the post — it opens many doors! And it reminds me of a conversation I once had with Dick Richards. Dick shared with me one day that a leader’s vision cannot be a leader’s vision alone. It must also be something that others intrinsically want. The leader’s vision must reflect what others also see and feel and need but may not have felt they could entirely articulate, or it must reflect what they have already said that has not yet been heard. Then the leader’s vision connects. I would say that is a source of inspiration as much as aspiration.
I have worked with leaders who are able to express their own aspirational goal, but they do not actually understand the shared heart of the people they serve, and therefore the quality of inspiration is still not there.
All the best
Hi Dan, A wonderful perspective and a great add to the conversation! I agree that a vision needs to connect. This is such an important element and pivot point because the vision becomes enlarged by the people engaged who support it and do the work to realize it. Shared heart is a great way to summarize what a vision should incite.
Very grateful for your insightful add to this conversation (as always, Dan!).
Great thought provoking piece, Jon! I wonder if there is a way to measure vision? This obviously seems strange to consider. However, I wonder if it is measured in the number of people it encompasses? And what they achieve as a result? And how many on the “outside” become willing participants of that vision? A truly compelling vision is like a good story … it sucks you into its landscape and makes you a participant.
Brian, Great question! Measuring vision may be based in: Level of engagement, brand recognition and engagement, milestones toward achievement…. There are different ways and some may be more qualitative than quantitative, making it more challenging in a business sense. Saying “we’ll know it when we see it” doesn’t work! Just like a story, there are certain things we measure – are readers engaged, do they stay with it, are people buying it, and are people sharing it with a larger community. All seem measurable.
Great question… one that may lead to another post. Love the connection of vision to story! Thanks! Jon
Loved the graphic, Jon.
Our vision must always be connected to our sense of purpose.
When we fail to connect with others who share the same vision, we fail as leaders of that vision. Too often the vision is connected only with monetary rewards, and while that may motivate some for a period of time, it cannot sustain over the long haul.
LaRae, Agree wholeheartedly! Vision must be connected to our sense of purpose. Vision is about connection and, in the comments, we see this point arise in different voices. Thank you for your perspective. Grateful, Jon
Jon, this is a great perspective on vision and being adaptable. The only thing I would add is that following a vision can take many years before reaping gains. Often, the first year is just convincing your team and partners of the vision. Then there is the hard work of trying to actualize it. So I agree that along the path a leader must be willing to navigate in different ways, though also accept that a vision may take a lot of time and effort to materialize.
That is a great point, Ryan. Achieving a vision takes time and we need to patiently do the work required, staying committed to the path ahead and the values to foster engagement. Earlier this week, I attended an luncheon where several company had embarked on a Conscious Capitalism path and each said gaining traction and sustained change and success takes time.
Thanks for your points. Appreciate it! Jon
A wonderful exploration of the subject of vision Jon. One of the things I have found that has worked is when leaders actively and continuously engage in conversations about what the stated vision for their organization means to each and every person from their own unique vantage point. All too often an executive team with “come down from the mountain” to reveal their vision as a presentation rather than make it the source of an ongoing conversation. If you want people to own the vision and take action to realize it, they must have the opportunity to breath life into its meaning in their world.
Excellent point, Susan. Bringing the vision into active, ongoing conversations is essential to make it real and bring it to life. Engaging conversations have a way of getting people more engaged! Grateful for your insights and appreciate your feedback. Thanks! Jon
I’ve seen teams an organizations go wrong when they think that vision is a statement instead of shared purpose in motion. No aspirational vision or aspirational leaders simply encourages everyone to spin as fast as they can on stationary bicycles. Eventually, people will get tired out and leave.
Love your models and this is no exception.
Great point, Alli. In fact, there may be nothing worse than a leader who thinks they are being aspirational when they are only asking people to “spin in place, faster.” Purpose is core to so much, including profit. They both co-exist well! Thanks. Jon
Excellent article! Vision must incite Feelings And Action would be my humble opinion. Feeling and acting together is sharing a vision which becomes culture; which is ultimately intrinsic and interdependent. Just thinking out loud in response to interesting writings. Steve, Scotland.
Thank you! I agree when the “feelings” of empowerment, problem-solving, responsibility, accountability, etc. exist. Those feelings then become the culture to support an activated vision. Appreciate your input and feedback, Steve!
Excellent post Jon! The absolute must have element in vision from my point of view is that it must be understandable. To go anywhere, it must be both aspirational and achievable. Getting people on board is often about making sure people know where they fit in. Always love your four squares….
Thank you, Joy. Agree. Vision must be understandable in terms of purpose, possibilities ahead, and what role individuals play to activate it. Doing these things (and more) make it achievable. Appreciate your feedback and insights… glad you like the 4 squares! I always enjoy using them to think through ideas. Thanks! Jon