The Last Thing You Need Is a Vision

Vision Is the Last Thing You Need
Recently a business colleague startled me by stating “vision is oversold and overrated.”

I was surprised because, although leaders often don’t know how to create a vision, I assumed they believe it 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 and worth considering.

Is vision no longer relevant?

I reflected on other times leaders have dismissed 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, I was frequently asked what I thought. 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 also need a vision of where he wanted to take the organization? Ultimately yes – because without a shared understanding of where they were going, the holes might be plugged, but the ship would be dead in the water.

Two years after taking the helm, after dealing with the immediate crises, Mr. 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. This vision guided his famous turnaround, 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?

Purpose explains “why.” It explains who you are. Strategy explains “how.” It is the vehicle or path that takes you to your destination – but it doesn’t explain where you’re going. 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.

Many people have developed a cynical attitude toward vision because of the ways it has been misused.  Recently, a colleague shared this description of her own experience:

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 been met with skepticism and would have lost credibility. He needed to address the immediate crisis, which included restructuring. Later, he was able to engage his team in a process that clarified the direction that would turn IBM around.

I have come to the conclusion that Gertsner was right. Sometimes vision is not the first thing you need, but the last thing you need is a vision – if it matters where you’re going.

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20 comments to The Last Thing You Need Is a Vision

  • Hi Jesse
    I was intrigued by the post title! Got my attention. What I read was a lesson in rebalancing of vital corporate functions, depending on circumstances. I, too, thought that vision was primary, but I want to thank you for putting it in it’s place.
    Now I know it is essential, and works hand in hand with strategy and purpose.

    • Hi Kate,

      As always, I appreciate your comments and feedback. The misuse of the vision process causes a lot of problems. When leaders push the visioning process onto people, instead of involving them, they end up with a meaningless statement and a lot of resentment.

      My best,
      Jesse

  • Thanks, Jesse, for a great exploration of “the vision thing.”

    I have found that vision often dovetails with purpose (and mission), but it really should be more of a long-term goal for the organization: “Our mission is X, and our vision is that in 10 years we will be (or have achieved) Y.” Doing X successfully will help the organization achieve Y.

    My feeling is that while a mission may or may not be inspirational, a vision should be. What do you think?

    • Hi Phil,

      I agree there is a direct relationship between purpose and vision. (And also with values which I will be blogging more about this in the future.) I agree that vision should be inspirational and I also think that purpose can be quite inspirational when it answers “why” and not just “what.” (See my last blog post for more on this)

      From my perspective, there is a difference between a vision and a long-term goal. A long term-goal is a milestone in achieving the vision, but a vision that provides ongoing guidance isn’t timebound.

      Some people erroneously think the vision should be vague like being the best. A vision that provides ongoing guidance is a picture you can imagine of a desirable future that illuminates your underlying purpose and values. For example, ‘a computer on every desk” or “for everyone to leave the park with the same smile they had when they entered.”

      Most visions aren’t reduced to one-liners, like the vision of Martin Luther King, Dr. Although one-liners can be helpful, they often become slogans relegated to the marketing department, disconnected from the realities of life of the organization. Keeping the vision alive is one of the primary responsibilities of leadership, as Max DePree aptly explained in his book “Leadership Is An Art.”

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comments.
      Jesse

  • Great stuff, Jesse! You did a great job of being fair about some of the arguments against vision but also gave me new things to think about. I’m chewing on it… Keep up the great work!

  • Hi Jesse,

    You know, due to my friendship with you and Twitter, I am now reading your ‘business’ related posts while thinking about my current employment and consulting. My experience is that school districts nowadays lack vision. They have goals (“reducing the achievement gap” and “improving state test scores”) but no vision. Isn’t the vision of a school district obvious, they might think? What about their ‘vision’ for their students on the autism spectrum? (Basically, no school district I know of has one, and neither do the teachers). This has led me to think about what is my vision for my business with regards to kids on the spectrum

    Thanks.

    • Hi Susan, I agree. Schools are focused on “what” they are doing, without an agreed upon vision of where they are going or why. As for a vision for students on the autism spectrum, or any other special needs, sadly school systems in the US are pretty much back to where they were when you and I worked together in the early 1970′s. My cynical side is tempted to say you have to care about something before you create a vision for it. On the other hand, I encourage you to keep thinking about your own vision within the range of your own sphere of influence. Little pockets of miracles can occur, and they are noticed by and affect others. Glad you’re checking out the “business” world. I think you’ll find the same lessons apply to all organizations – non-profit, community-based, government and education. And thanks for leaving a comment. I’m honored!

  • Jesse, I so totally relate to your thoughts!

    In my experience, vision is what defines and separates the average from the extraordinary. …Although, I can’t take any credit for that wisdom. As a young manager, the CEO of the company I worked for, asked me if I had shared my vision for my team with them.

    My immediate, but silent thought was, “Oh no, I’m supposed to have one of those? …How do I get one of those…?”

    Within minutes I realized I had a vision the entire time, I had simply not identified it as such. …And I had not shared it with the team in a way that they could understand it, feel it, taste it, smell it and desire it… Doing so was a defining moment for our team.

    As the years have passed and I’ve shared that passion with others, I frequently get reactions much like you did. My interpretation of those reactions is that too often a vision is a statement that is written, printed on a poster, hung on a wall and forgotten instead of being used as a tool that literally empowers and unleashes the greatness of a team.

    • What a wonderful story, Chery. Thanks for taking the time to share it. Your story illustrates that vision can arise anywhere in an organization. A department or team needs to have a vision… as well as each person for their own job (the topic of my last blog). Ideally all of these are aligned with the vision of the organization. But it’s not an excuse to say you can’t have a vision because the organization doesn’t have one (the topic of a future blog).
      Warm wishes,
      Jesse

  • Enjoyed your blog and your insight. Two thoughts came to mind. There are some professionals, Managers, Directors, etc. that have difficulty in getting their hands and mind around the concept and abstract characteristics of a vision. They have little use for it, they consider the process of developing such an image as a waste of resources and time. These types are usually individuals that operate in the black and white and tend to be risk averse.

    I assisted the leadership of an internal business unit through through a change management session in which they were deciding how to best manage their workforce over a 9 to 12 month period in which the majority of the group were to be displaced. I did not talk about the vision of the company beyond he 12 months, but what was their short term vision for the separation of the associates. At the point of time in which the associates were fully separated from the company, what did that look like. What were the positive feelings from the associates during the separation, what were they saying and what were others saying about the treatment of the displaced associates. This was not a corporate vision, but a vision directly related to the outcome of the transition. We were able to work backwards into very specific behaviors the managers and leaders would need to exhibit in order to reach this desired end state.

    This ensured that all the leaders involved in the process had the same end state in mind when it came to the transition. What was expected and the appropriate behaviors required of leadership to get to the end state.

    The term “Vision” is definitely over used and takes on different meanings, but I think the process can be effectively utilized effectively for many different situations.

    • Creating a clear picture of the end-result is a powerful way to focus energies. Sounds like you were able to facilitate a humane transition. Bravo!
      Thanks for sharing your experience, Bill.
      My best,
      Jesse

  • I have found that many people are extremely vague in their visioning process, and then decide based upon this that Visioning does not work. I have also found that many use Visioning as a distraction from what’s in front of them right now that they don’t want to deal with. What I think I’m hearing from you is that Visioning is a valuable and effective tool when used properly, and in balance with strategic action and planning.

    Thanks for the excellent article, Jesse.

    Warmly,

    Velma

    • Hi Velma, I agree that some people use vision as a way to avoid dealing with the realities of their current situation. The potential of vision is only released when one takes an accurate assessment of what “is” and holds onto their vision of what “could be” and is willing to live with the tension it generates.
      Thanks for bringing up this important point.
      Warmly, Jesse

  • Jesse,

    I’m totally sold on vision-driven living.

    Looking into the future transforms a rich past into a platform. Or, when the past is unsatisfactory, looking into the future enables us to let go of the past.

    We could debate the relationship between values, mission, and vision. In my opinion vision brings vitality to values and mission.

    Love your style and how you add value.

    Best,

    Dan

  • Hi Dan,

    Lovely! Two beautiful descriptions of the power of vision. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

    Warmly,
    Jesse

  • Jesse, I would love to have been the fly on the wall to get the context of the conversation you and your friend were having. Personally, I cannot see purpose and strategy being more important than vision in the long run. If I don’t know what I am striving for, why go anywhere? There are difficult steps involved in the process and I think one of the biggest reasons for not buying into the process is when people don’t know how to. Rather than put their hand up and ask for help, they will belittle the requirement (of a vision) and call it unimportant (your friend excluded here, I am more referring to the true believer in vision is not important). You have put this message across very well and personally, I do not get involved where my values are not aligned, and definitely run a mile when I do not get the vision. “Even a dead fish can go with the flow”, I read that somewhere and it has stuck with me as that is in my mind a dangerous approach to take.

    • Hi Thabo, Your comments further illuminate the point I was making in my post. I had not heard the saying “Even a dead fish can go with the flow.” It certainly gives one pause for thought. Thanks again so much for stopping by and sharing.

  • So often, businesses and individuals either lose sight of an established vision or fail to create one in the first place, instead choosing a course of action that is either defined by or in reaction to clients/others. The result? Chaos and unproductivity and a breakdown of cohesiveness. With a clear vision, it is easier to execute the mission while staying aligned with stated values, or as Dan so beautifully wrote, “vision brings vitality to mission and values.”

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