Since the 1970’s vision statements have adorned the walls of most organisations, being used to communicate the direction in which an organisation is heading. Most are poor vehicles for that communication and serve mainly to confuse or bemuse the employees they are supposed to guide.
The majority of vision statements are poor. At best these poor vision statements are not challenging enough to develop the creative tension between the present and the future to energise the organisation. Many however are not even understood by the people in the organisation whose task it is to strive to reach the vision.
Vision statements which do not provide a succinct unequivocal view of the direction an organisation is heading in are counterproductive to the aims of most organisations. They are only paid lip service by employees and do not positively influence the behaviour of employees other than providing opportunities to behave in a cynical manner.
Vision statements tend to fall into three categories. First is the short and useful which is a rare occurrence. Second is the long tedious and confusing statement, developed by a group of senior managers sitting in a closed room for two days with an erstwhile consulting cramming every stakeholder and every objective in one extraordinarily long sentence. Third is the statement which short relative to the second and seems to have been created by a word generator.
Many vision statements fall into the third category. They follow a pattern such as: To be the (leading/best) (provider/supplier) of (customer focused/market driven (solutions/products/service).
As a vision it serves little purpose. It could have been thought of by a group of high school students as a homework exercise in strategy for their economics subject. It is not what we would expect from experienced senior leaders of an organisation. The statements of the third type are generally indistinguishable from one organisation to another in different industries and in no way indicate how an organisation may build a competitive edge.
If one asks how people in an organisation defines simple words like best or customer focused or even customer the responses vary markedly. Thus a vision statement worded as above will have significantly different meanings to people in the organisation. Clearly this was not the intention of a vision statement, but it is often the reality.
The second type tends be of a form such as: We will be recognised in the (industry/market) as the leader in our (preferred segments/target markets) whilst ensuring the appropriate standards of (safety/environmental protection/corporate governance) are maintained, leveraging our (brand value/consumer reputation) thereby delivering (customer value/shareholder value) and building our future (profits/sales).
There is only one comment required of the second type of vision statement, “What the!?” The statements of this type, and they do exist; mean nothing because they attempt to mean everything from a vision to a set of goals to a strategy and some tactics.
The first type of statement takes the minimalist approach of finding some words convey the one thing that employees should not forget that the organisation is trying to achieve. It is short so that is memorable, the goal may be vague so that it can be lasting as specific goals change, it is something greater than what the organisation is today and it is inclusive.
They tend to take the form (1) an inclusive word (2) an action, (3) an objective of the action. For example, We will double our size in three years or We will be internationally recognised or We will be a profit centre.
The latter of these three examples has transformed the behaviour of a client in Australia which is a currently a cost centre after being saddled with a vision statement of the third type for its first five years of formation. The vision statement they had was confusing and capable of interpretation so vastly different that no coherent strategy could cover the range of interpretations of just the senior management.
Whilst there is now debate about how they will be a profit centre and when, there is no debate about what profit means and all levels of the organisation are energised to deliver it. Being a profit centre was always the senior manager’s view of what they needed to do. That is to be so good at what they do that people would be willing to pay money for them to do it, hence ‘We will be a profit centre’
Vision statements can be useful. Too often they are lengthy motherhood statements with no ability to motivate anyone, rather an ability to confuse and to bore as their claim to fame. They tend to be a goal, a strategy or strategies and tactics rolled into one.
To be useful, vision statements must be short, be inclusive and must suggest some degree of action and an outcome.