Vision Statements That Work: The Long and Short of It

How long should your vision statement be?

The answer: Long enough.

Long enough to evoke a noble sense of purpose, provide a call to action, and describe a clear picture of your destination.

These four vision statements work because they condense a lot of information into an inspiring statement that is quickly understood by most people. If you were not familiar with the context, it would require a much longer statement to explain them.

xxxxxxxxA computer on every desk. ~Steve Jobs

xxxxxxxxA computer on every desk in every home running Microsoft software. ~Bill Gates

xxxxxxxxProduce an affordable automobile. ~Henry Ford

xxxxxxxxOne team, one country. ~Nelson Mandela

HOWEVER…most effective vision statements are NOT short statements.

Consider Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” statement, Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the United States or Louis Gertsner, Jr’s vision to bring IBM back to it’s roots as a provider of integrated solutions. Most effective vision statements cannot be adequately conveyed in a few sweeping sentences.

A one-liner can be helpful as it provides a rally call that reminds us of the full message. However, it becomes problematic if you think your vision must be a one-liner.

When a one-liner doesn’t come easily, people often come up with something that amounts to little more than a marketing slogan – all fluff and no substance.

Here are some examples of one-liners that don’t work.

“To be the provider of choice.”

On an internet search, I found 20 unrelated companies that listed this as their mission.

“To become the most competitive enterprise in the world by being number one or number two in every business in which we compete.” ~Jack Welch.

A statement like this creates a danger of dilution as it provides no guidelines. Would they acquire any viable business that is number one or two? Drycleaning? School buses? Pet grooming? Jack Welch’s effectiveness with GE was not due to this particular sentence.

“One Vision. Mission. Passion. The best possible care.” ~St. Francis Hospital

I noticed this statement hanging as a huge sign as I walked through the airport this week. I was astounded – “The best possible care.”  Isn’t that the point of all hospitals? In effect, the sign is saying “our vision is to do our job exceptionally well.” It’s hard to get too excited about a statement like that. A mobilizing statement dares you to be more than mediocre. How much more powerful it would be if their statement was something like: “The best possible care for everyone who enters our doors, regardless of their circumstances.”

What makes a vision statement work?

What all great vision statements have in common is they provide an answer these three questions, either directly or indirectly.

1) Destination: Where are we going?

2) Purpose: Why do we exist? What greater good do we serve?

3) Values: What principles guide our decisions and actions on our journey?

If your one-liner conveys the answer to these questions, that’s great. If not, don’t worry if your statement is longer.

Remember, what’s important is what your vision statement communicates, not how it looks.

22 comments to Vision Statements That Work: The Long and Short of It

  • Loved your examples of the “good” and the “bad”, Jesse – takes me back to my blog post of a few months ago (“Why Mission Statements Suck”) where I recommended 1-page Strategic Plans. This led to requests for details and this post: “The Nuts & Bolts of the 1-Page Strategic Plan” http://ceoafterlife.com/leadership/80/

    • Thanks for your kind words, John. I like the idea of a 1-page strategic plan when they’ve already done the “heavy lifting” and it summarizes the more indepth thinking. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your link.

  • Thanks, Jesse. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve watched between those who like “short” and those who like”long.” Your examples provide wonderful insight into what’s really important in a vision statement.

  • Great explanation of what is truly important in a vision statement. Brevity at the expense of meaning as you have so clearly defined it doesn’t accomplish much. Yet I do think the process of striving for brevity – to convey your message in as few words as possible is enormously helpful in getting to “long enough”. It can make the difference between sounding like you talking about your vision vs. taking a stand for something that matters.

    • I agree with you Susan. Ultimately a short statement that reminds people of what’s essential can be quite helpful. Another thing that can be helpful is to create a symbol. May Kay’s bumble bee symbolizes their purpose of giving “wings” to housebound mothers. However, it’s important is to make sure you have a REAL message before you strive for brevity. AND it’s helpful to keep it longer while going through the process of instilling the vision in the hearts and minds of all employees. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Susan!

  • Wow, I bet that was a tough one to write! Boil down everything you know about writing effective vision statements into one blog post… :)

    For the first time ever, I think I may slightly disagree with the stance that vision statements should simply “long enough”. Granted an acceptable compromise to both of our positions would be a longer vision statement accompanied by a shorter tag line. It seems to me that if we wish for people to truly internalize the vision – to be banner carriers for it – it has to be shorter and memorable (which many of your examples here are). I fully agree that a vision like Jack’s was not the launching point for every bit of his success, but it still provided a clear cut guiding force that changed the direction of the company. Was it a perfectly clear picture of the destination, purpose, and values? Maybe not completely, but it sure seems to have those elements. It definitely communicated a very clear and effective change of mindset: no more mediocre around GE. It communicated his aggressive nature and his performance based mentality.

    In their book, “Made to Stick”, Dan and Chip Heath write that, “the more we reduce the amount of information in an idea, the stickier it will become.” Of course I am not advocating leaving out critical information in favor of simply making a statement that people remember, but I do believe that we should strive to make vision statements compact, actionable, and “sticky”. If we can internalize the idea, it would seem to me that if would be much more effective. Simpler and clear cut visions act somewhat like proverbs. Again, this is no excuse for poorly designed vision statements. I am VERY glad you pointed out the poor design of the St. Francis vision statement. I hate it when the vision is to do what should be done. This won’t drive anything forward.

    I like the definition of destination, purpose, and values. You provide a great framework here, and you do mention that one line vision statements can be effective. I simply think we should go a bit further saying that vision statements do not need to be one line, but they should be short and memorable. If they need to be longer, they should be accompanied by a sticky tag line or use some other literary tool like alliteration to make them memorable.

    Thanks for writing, Jesse! :)

    Micah Yost
    @GroupThrive

    • Hi Micah,

      I am absolutely delighted that you disagree. To quote a variation of William Wrigley, Jr. “When two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” My own observation has been that the message gets diluted when it is reduced to a tag line too quickly. I maintain that what’s important is that the message is understood – if it takes a 16 minute speech to convey it adequately, then that’s what’s needed.

      One of the questions that comes to mind is how is the vision to be used? If it is an external communication to the public, then the one liner can be a great vehicle to quickly capture attention. However, when leaders want to create a vision that will drive a significant change, a one liner that is introduced too soon, can actually turn people off. The issue is one of timing: of when to condense the message.

      You make some excellent points, Micah, and I will continue to mull them over. Thank you so much for taking the time to compose such an illuminating comment (actually a blog post of its own) and giving the readers of this post the opportunity to see another well crafted viewpoint on this subject.

  • If there is one thing that is always guaranteed besides a good blog is good comments on this page. I can see where you are coming from Micah, particularly in today’s world where we seem to want short and sweet or punchy. I like the idea of “long enough”. The important bit for me is that we all interpret that statement the same. So I am not impressed by everyone remembering the vision statement verbatim, they must simply get it and behave in a way that makes it a way of being rather than a destination. That is my ideal.

    Marketing can make derivatives of the vision through the short and punchy and that is likely to be more flexible as it changes a lot more. I find tag lines can be dangerous in that you do get pushed to compress too much which can leave a lot of meaning unclear as we see the world very differently.

    On a business front, we are sitting at a very interesting point where the vision statement has to change. Our values remain the same, but our vision got bigger, and not by design. So I would say our purpose and values are still relevant but our destination has taken on a new shape.

    • Thanks, Thabo. For sharing your thoughts and for engaging in the conversation!

      I’m curious- did your destination really take on a new shape or did it enlarge? I find the vision often expands the closer we get to our vision because we begin to understand it better. The essence doesn’t change, but the scope or outer form might. We discuss this in Full Steam Ahead! in the chapter “From Success to Significance.” I was wondering if that was the case in your situation or whether the essence really did change.

  • Great thoughts, Thabo. I concur with your statement:

    “The important bit for me is that we all interpret that statement the same.”

    Great to hear your insight, buddy.

    Micah Yost
    @GroupThrive

  • Jesse, enlarge is more the correct statement rather than change shape. It’s actually a funny story when I connect the dots backwards. It is a thrilling path and I could not ask for more, but would not say no to more either. Always enlightening jumping into a conversation here I must say. I connected with Micah here funny enough, and that has evolved into a relationship of its own…

  • I think your points are best summed up as “Size doesn’t matter, it’s how you use it that counts.” The vision statements that are meaningless, full of hyperbole, and rife with management doublespeak are those which fail to motivate any type of real unity around the message. The right message is one which “is long enough”, the problem seems to be that despite the brevity of the phrase “MBA”, once it makes it into the head, that MBA fills up lots and lots of words on the way out. ;-)

    - Steve
    http://Twitter.com/GanttGuru

  • Jake Martin

    I was wondering how you feel about specific dates on the vision and specific goals. For example. To reach over a billion dollars in sales while providing xx and xx with xx.

  • d. raghavan

    Jesse, what I found very useful was those examples of ‘Ineffective Visions’ and your explanations as to why they are poor. Even more interesting was that you included Jack Welsh’s statement there. Really cool. Besides cresting a powerful vision, which enthuses every stake holder of the company, what is equally important is to keep reiterating as often as feasible and to show live examples of how that Vision is being pursued. Even more important is to let individuals and small groups to share their examples of how they relate to it with what they do. That way, the vision gets continuously fueled to keep it alive. Another interesting aspect is that, in large organisations, such as Siemens, local entities, such as, Healthcare in India, are also developing our version of Vision Statements, which while are aligned to global, are more specific and more relevant to the local situation. Overall, I found your posting very useful. Ragavan

    • Thank you, Raghavan. This post focused on what needs to be included in a vision in order for it to inspire and provide clear direction. The Key to Vision Statements That Work illuminates this further. However, as you point out, for the vision to be powerful, people must have an opportunity to contribute and connect with it. In our book, Full Steam Ahead, Ken Blanchard and I say: What’s important is not only what it says, but also how it’s created, how it’s communicated and how it’s lived.
      You offer excellent suggestions on the process for creating and communicating the vision. Thank you for sharing your knowledge here.

  • Steve Boyle

    Came across this page purely by accident, one of the first interesting and challenging discourses on this subject I have seen; most Mission and Vision statements are boring and repetitive and belong in Dilbert! You have pointed out a fresh perspective and for that I shall follow this blog

  • Mahmoud

    Jesse, i’m starting a student run program in my country which is a model of the Egyptian parliament. The aim of the program is to get students aware of the critical problems facing the society and allow them to create proposals to solve these problems, and motivate them to participate in the real parliament to create a change in our society. This is my draft vision it would be great if you told me your view of it. “We strive to be a leading program that inspires students to be agents of change in the society. We exist to initiate a change in the way students live and work to produce a positive impact on the community. We aim to motivate the youth to actively participate in changing the environment we live in through an establishment that has governmental power as the Egyptian Parliament.”

    • Hello Mahmoud

      I like your initial explanation better than your formal statement as it is more clear. Also your formal statement is a bit redundant. Your vision statement should explain who you are, where you’re going, and what guides the journey. Given the information you’ve provided me, I have revised it to demonstrate this point. I am not suggesting that this should be your vision statement, I only want to show how a statement can explain a clear purpose and a provide a picture of what you intend to accomplish. (I did add that this is a student run program since that is a unique characteristic that defines who you are.)

      We are a student-run program that fosters awareness of the critical problems facing society and prepares our students to become change agents. We support their creating proposals to solve these problems and prepare them to participate in establishments that have governmental power, such as the Egyptian Parliament, so they can create a positive change in the community and our society.

      I also assumed that being student-run, rather than using traditional teaching methods, you empower students. I also assumed that since you are preparing them to participate in parliament, you expect they will bring about change from within the system. If I am correct, then an example of the end-result would be:

      We empower students to become change agents who work within the system to address the critical problems facing society.

      You might find my earlier post helpful: The Key to Vision Statements That Work

      Ultimately, my words, and possible even yours, as not what’s most important. You didn’t mention who was involved in creating this statement. Since this is a student-run program, it seems that it would be important to have student involvement in creating the vision. They don’t need to craft the words, which can be tedious, but it would be important to include the concepts and words they feel are most important. For an explanation of why involvement is important, see my post: The Process Is as Important as the Product.

      Best wishes as you move forward in creating your program.

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