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© 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.
Excerpt from www.NDMA.COM, © 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.

Executive Summary: How to Develop an Effective Vision Statement

why most vision statements are of little value, and how to create a compelling leadership vision

by N. Dean Meyer

[excerpt from the book, How Organizations Should Work]

Most leaders are familiar with Stephen Covey's second "habit": begin with the end in mind.

Or as the old aphorism says: "If you don't know where you're going, any road will do."

Lots of leaders create vision statements. But many of them aren't clear about what they hope to accomplish -- they just think it's something that leaders are supposed to do.

As a result, few vision statements actually do much good. In a cynical mood, one might even say that these carefully crafted, glowing words are hardly worth the paper they're written on.

In fact, vision statements can be very powerful (if they're written properly). Let's begin with the end in mind.... Why do you need a vision?

Purpose of a Vision

The need for a vision starts with a desire to create an organization that's somehow different from the one that exists today. A vision of the future is intended to drive needed changes.

It's true, to embark on an organizational transformation, you need a definition of the end-state -- a blueprint, a detailed description of the future organization.

"Not all leaders have the opportunity to implement a major transformation. If you need to address pressing problems right away, [Meyer] provides a comprehensive vision so that each near-term change adds up to a coherent end-state. There's no excuse for delaying the start of the journey."
Gary Rietz, CIO, Blommer Chocolate

Even if you are not in a position to drive a comprehensive transformation, a vision of the end-state ensures that each incremental change adds up to a consistent end-state. Effective leaders don't zigzag!

You need a vision for at least three reasons:

  • To capture hearts and minds, leaders have to explain to people where you're taking them -- an inspirational goal. Vision should attract great talent, motivate staff, and convince customers that you're working to delight them.

  • Vision provides a benchmark. The gaps between that "stretch assignment" and today's reality tell you what you need to work on. This way, you won't just react to the crises of the day.

  • With a well-defined blueprint of the end-state, each step you take will be in a consistent direction. You won't zig-zag, or worse, make changes that take you in the wrong direction.

Imagination is the first step in invention.
N. Dean Meyer

More fundamentally, a vision creates the possibility of it coming to be.

Vision of What?

What is it that you envision?

A vision of the content of your work (your team's deliverables, e.g., a future technology vision, or a future business position) is dangerous. In a volatile world, we need dynamic organizations -- not organizations locked into a response to yesterday's challenges and opportunities, yesterday's business strategies. Agility is the key.

And a vision is not a business goal (like market share or revenue growth), or a strategy (like acquisitions or digital business).

So, what's the vision about? How your organization will work. How it will address any and all challenges and opportunities that arise in an agile, dynamic manner.

It's a description of an organization that can invent and deliver a continual stream of strategies to meet ever-evolving goals, year after year.

What Is a Vision?

"In technology we expect bold experiments that... lead to major advances.

But in matters of social organization we usually propose only
timid modifications... and balk at daring experiment and innovation.

But it is time to apply to business organizations the same willingness to innovate that has set the pace of scientific advance."
Jay W. Forrester

Furthermore, to be visionary, it has to be something big -- a breakthrough. It can't be just fine-tuning ("rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic").

Vision is not about current "best" practices (what others are already doing); or worse, common practices (where the lemmings went yesterday).

It's about ideal practices -- the best we can imagine. Your vision may read like science fiction, but don't worry about that. Great leaders look as far into the future as they possibly can see.

Clarity and Detail

A vision that can inspire and serve as a blueprint has to be crystal clear.

It has to be much more than a marketing slogan like, "To deliver great stuff that helps our customers succeed."

And it has to be much more than a vague promise like, "We are committed to delighting customers with products and services that are of awesome value to them."

It's certainly not something you want to get like, "We will be recognized as wonderful."

And a vision is not to be confused with a mission -- a worthwhile purpose that motivates people by illuminating the value of their work.

"If you don't know where you are going,
you'll end up someplace else."
Yogi Berra

And it's important to put that vision in writing so that you can consistently communicate it, evolve it, and implement it.

What a Useful Vision Looks Like

An effective vision is not some cute phrase or sentence. That may sound inspirational, but it's not something you can deliberately build.

To serve as a practical guide, a vision should describe exactly how the end-state organization will operate, in as much detail as possible. It's a blueprint of the organizational operating model you intend to build in coming years.

An effective vision statement is a clear, detailed description of the organization of the future. It answers the question:

How exactly would our organization work if it's the best we can envision.

"A vision is... a dream created in our waking hours
of how we would like the organization to be."
Peter Block

That clarity and detail ensures that everybody understands the destination in the same way. And it gives you a blueprint to guide the design of each organizational system.

To capture that detail, a vision is typically 10 to 15 pages long (a far cry from a rallying call or single sentence).

The Themes Within a Vision

This multi-page vision statement may be divided into chapters representing "themes" of expectations.

Examples of themes include:

"Managers have their eyes on the bottom line; leaders have their eyes on the horizon."
Warren Bennis

  • Relationships with customers
  • Contribution to enterprise value
  • Operations (services)
  • Engineering and architecture (projects)
  • Security, risk, and continuity
  • Policies, planning, and compliance
  • Resource governance and financial management
  • Organizational structure
  • Culture
  • Metrics
  • People management

Within each theme, a page or two of statements describes exactly what the organization of the future will do (not the goals of doing so).

Together, the themes add up to an organization that is the best you can imagine.

How to Use NDMA's Vision to Develop Yours

Across all the themes, and the detailed expectations under each, there must a common thread -- a unifying design goal so that all those detailed statements work together as a coherant organizational operating model.

What might that common thread be?

The Market Organization is a compelling choice. In the Market Organization, every manager thinks and acts like an entrepreneur running a small business. Everybody understands that the purpose of their group is to deliver products and services to customers, inside and outside their organization.

NDMA has explored every aspect of the Market Organization. It's documented in detail in the book, How Organizations Should Work.

Book: How Organizations Should Work

Here's a brief synopsis of the Market Organization....

  • The management hierarchy (reporting structure) fulfills its usual roles of structuring subordinate domains, communications and coordination, and inspirational leadership (including performance management). But hierarchy is not the way work gets done.

  • Every box on the organization chart is a business within a business, defined by the products and services it provides.

  • Groups "sell" their products and services to customers (their market), within the company and externally (with or without chargebacks). In that sense, every group is a "shared service."

  • Staff think and act like entrepreneurs. They're customer focused, accountable, prudent about spending, and innovative.

  • Teams form dynamically across the entire organization, as groups "subcontract" for help from their peers. Within each team, it's clear who's accountable for the entire project/service and what sub-deliverables every other team-member is accountable for.

  • Great cross-boundary teamwork permits specialization, which augments performance. There's no need for "silos" or decentralization, which drive costs up and performance down.

  • Budgets are based on what groups are expected to deliver (not past years' spending).

  • Priorities are adjusted dynamically throughout the year, as opportunities and imperatives require. For internal service providers, their customers are in control of their priorities.

  • Staff are empowered with authorities (resources, information, and decision rights) that match their accountabilities.

More on how to develop a leadership vision....

You may not agree with everything in this vision. You may even strive for the opposite. That's fine, as long as you have your own vision and can describe it clearly to the people you lead.

"This book is filled with powerful insights. If more organizations foster this kind of leadership and entrepreneurship among their team members, surely that would contribute to leaving a better planet for future generations."
Ramiro Castillo, Transformation and People Director, Corporacion AG;
and Board member, Del Valle University

The book just provides a starting point -- a rough draft that you can edit into your own vision.

Once you've defined your own vision, you'll know where you're going. So you'll know which road will do.

How to Create a Vision

Whatever direction your own vision may take, there's a well-tested process you can use to create it and harvest its value.

The first step is listening to customers, bosses, and staff. Ask each what they want from your organization in an ideal world. What would they consider "world class"?

To listen, a leader may personally make the rounds (as one would do when starting a new job). Or there may be more efficient and comprehensive ways to engage many people in providing their input.

Then, an executive must decide the degree of involvement of leaders, staff, and other stakeholders. There are various ways this part of the process can be designed:

Executive Leadership All
Executive Broader All
Leadership Broader All
Leadership None All

The executive could draft the vision alone, or engage his/her leadership team in the drafting process.

The next step is gathering input on that draft. This could be from just the leadership team (if the executive drafted the vision), or a broader set of stakeholders (staff, bosses, cutomers).

Finally, the vision is communicated to all stakeholders -- to "capture hearts and minds." Of course, the more people who were involved in its creation, the easier communications will be.

More on the vision process, the first step in transformation planning....

Is It Worth It?

"Keep your eyes on the stars,
and your feet on the ground."
Theodore Roosevelt

The simple answer is: If you intend to bring about meaningful change in your organization, a clear and comprehensive vision is an essential first step.

It gets you buy-in, funding for transformation, cooperation, and patience. It motivates staff to change. And it defines a consistent end-state that guides every organizational decision along the way.


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