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.

Does Vision Incite?

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:

  1. Growth within a defined space (Think 37 Signals)
  2. 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 WorksVision 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?