Recently a highly respected business colleague startled me by stating “vision is oversold and overrated.”
Having spent over 25 years working with leaders to create a shared vision, I had come to assume that although people often don’t know how to create one, everyone believes vision is important.
To be fair, my friend wasn’t saying that vision isn’t important; he was saying it’s less important than purpose and strategy. But still, it sounded provocative.
I reflected on other times I’ve heard people dismiss the importance of vision.
“The Vision Thing”
Of course there’s the famous comment that plagued former US president George Bush. During his 1987 campaign, when he was urged to stop focusing on the small pieces and figure out where he wanted to take the country, he replied with an irritated “Oh, the vision thing.” Not only did that phrase haunt him throughout his presidency, it has since earned a place of its own in Wikipedia. Mr. Bush is also distinguished as the last US president to serve only one term.
“The Last Thing IBM Needs Is a Vision”
Another well-know dismissive remark about vision came from Louis Gertsner, Jr. in 1993 when he took the helm of IBM — “the last thing IBM needs is a vision.” For months after he made that statement, every time I spoke to a group on the topic of vision, someone would ask my opinion. I always replied that it depended what he meant by “vision.” If he meant a pie-in-the-sky dream that wasn’t connected to daily life, he was absolutely right.
At that time, IBM was in big trouble, with losses of $8 billion a year and morale at an all time low. He needed to turn the ship around quickly and patch the holes below the waterline. But would he need clear plans, strategy and direction? You bet. Without it, the ship would be dead in the water.
Two years later, Gertsner announced IBM’s new vision and the strategy to achieve it—a return to IBM as a customer-focused provider of computing solutions, employing network computing as an overarching strategy. His famous turnaround was eventually detailed in his 2002 book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?
If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, It Doesn’t Matter What Path You Take.
So, are purpose and strategy enough?
It’s difficult to engage the hearts and minds of the people through purpose and strategy alone.
Purpose explains “why.” Strategy is a vehicle that takes you to your destination. It explains “how,” but it doesn’t tell “where.” And as the Cheshire Cat in Wonderland remarked to Alice: If you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter what path you take.
I think the real problem is:
Vision is overused and under-defined.
A real vision is not a catchy phrase or slogan that is disconnected with the reality of life in the organization. Nor is it a vague statement like being “number one.” A real vision shows you where to go and makes you want to go there. It provides a picture that you can actually see in your imagination.
A real vision is clearly understood by everyone, engages their hearts and minds, is tied directly to their real work, and provides guidelines for making decisions. And a real vision is enduring—lasting beyond the leadership period of the person who originally articulated it, whether that is the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Herb Kelleher’s vision for Southwest Airlines.
The process of creating the vision is as important as what it says.
Some people have a cynical attitude toward vision because the process has been misused. Recently, a colleague provided me with a description of her experience in this situation:
Ten years ago I quit my job as a manager in a large corporation during a siege known as Redeployment, replete with vision and values workshops, many of which I was asked to lead. It was a farce. The company was downsizing, people were losing their jobs, and those who stayed felt bad for their friends and colleagues and insecure about their own jobs. The platitudes in the vision meant nothing. As a manager, I felt like we were trying to sell them a bill of goods instead of helping people deal with the reality of what was happening. Being part of the charade got to be too much for me, so I left.
If Louis Gertsner had arrived at IBM and tried to “sell” the people on a lofty vision, he would have lost credibility. He needed to address the immediate crisis, which included restructuring.
Gertsner was right. Vision might not be the first thing you need, but it is always the last.
What has your experience been with vision?
Have you experienced the power of vision on a team or in an organization?
Has vision played a role in your personal life?