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Envisioning A Brighter Future

The role of visioning in catalysing corporate change

What separates a competent corporate vision from a really inspiring and memorable one?

In my view, it’s MEANING and CONTEXT – but then over the years, I have encountered so many without either, and yet the companies involved swear by them and even print posters with these statements on it.

On the one hand, there are vision statements that are about ambition: “To be the best…” or “To be the most admired…” or “To be the leading…”

This could, to some extent, be noble since no one should have a vision that isn’t at least somewhat aspirational – but is stating your ambition the same as creating a “Vision”?

The key is to ensure that your vision statement clearly describes an envisioned future that is different from today, in which you also articulate why this difference matters to you, your team members, customers and investors (meaning and context, all in one).

It must be bold enough to demand everyone on the team pull together to perform to their fullest potential. In the words of N. R. Narayana Murthy, founder of Infosys (one of India’s largest and most successful software companies): “You have to create a grand, noble vision which elevates the energy, enthusiasm and self-esteem of everyone in the company while ensuring that everybody sees a benefit in following the vision.”

The best vision statements to me are those which combine meaning and context with a concise, succinct use of words:

Oxfam: A just world without poverty

Kiva: We envision a world where all people – even in the most remote areas of the globe – hold the power to create opportunity for themselves and others.

London School of Economics: “Rerum cognoscere causas” in Latin which translates “To understand the causes of things”.

A thoughtful BusinessWeek article described the key elements of an inspiring vision as:

  • Brevity (so everyone can remember and repeat it)

  • Specificity (so it’s really clear and you’ll know when you’ve achieved it)

  • Consistency (i.e. communicating it over and over again –  so people really internalize it)

  • Emotional Connection (so it matters to the people it’s meant to inspire)

However, I would like to add to the BusinessWeek list something that may sound radical as the first step to creating a great vision:

Disallow the use of laudatory adjectives and all jargon – i.e. phrases that sounds agreeable but have no real meaning.

This may sound a bit onerous but really serves to filter out all the redundant self-congratulatory words, and leave meaning and context behind.

In the words of Lucy Kellaway, the Financial Times columnist and all-time cynic of corporate speak, bad corporate statements are those guilty of “…using guff for exaggeration, euphemism and obfuscation, and for conveying fake emotion. Above all, they must never use a simple word when a longer one would do.”

So the words and phrases I would ban in the vision creation phase for any company or institution?

  • Definitely, vainglorious statements which start with “To be a leading…”

  • Vague, laudatory nouns and adjectives like “excellence”; “highest quality”; “best-in-class”…

  • Entry-level values like “honesty”, and “teamwork – which one of us would not expect these to be a baseline for a functioning organisation? So do we need to state the obvious?

  • Emotional generics like “caring” – all service organisations appear to feel compelled to use this word as if the lack of it would make it any less empathetic or considerate of its people and customers.

  • Finally, all phrases which join up words which we understand in isolation but make little sense in combination; like “global knowledge enterprise”; “synchronised brand presence” and other such jargon.

So much for the DO NOT’S, here’s my list of the DO’S in a Vision Creation Exercise with your team:

  1. Define the CONTEXT: by outlining who the stakeholders are and why you should, and how you can, matter to them.

  2. Look for MEANING: in better understanding how you can be relevant to your stakeholders: What motivates them? What are they each concerned about? What do they really care about, and what important problem for them, can you solve?

  3. Highlight how you would address the issues close to the hearts of the key stakeholders and why you are in a UNIQUE position to do this in a manner that others cannot or would not. This is your PROMISE to them.

  4. Define the VALUES which would need to be embraced to make your delivery of your promise, engaging and worthwhile to them.

  5. Ultimately, the vision you create should be your “reason to exist” – why you’re here to do what you do and why they should care, and what your people should care about to make this Vision a reality.

The final word on the visioning exercise is that it is PROCESS in co-creation and not an exercise in COPYWRITING. This means the process itself should be structured, and properly facilitated – preferably by a professional, who would not be encumbered by the internal politics of such an exercise.

The journey of creating a Vision for your organisation will be as interesting as the people participating in the co-creation process, so look hard for creative and inspiring people who can be a part of the visioning exercise, and do not limit yourself to the decision-makers.

Once you’ve got a draft of your Vision, Mission and Values, put it through a litmus test evaluating the following:

  1. Is it distinctive to your organisation? (Or does it sound somewhat derivative or like it belongs to someone else?)

  2. Does it articulate your point of view about the business you’re in or your reason to exist?

  3. Is it relevant to the people who will need to act on it? Is it actionable? Does it suggest some specific behaviour or mind-set?

  4. Is your VMV a point of reference for key decisions on organisational direction?

If you’d like to evaluate your Vision, Mission and Values to determine whether that is memorable, inspiring and galvanising to those that matter to the organisation – please click here to take our Litmus Test.

To those of you embarking on a Visioning exercise, we wish you a fruitful and stimulating journey of discovery.


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Envisioning A Brighter Future