What Happened to Vision? Your Thoughts?

Here’s a question I have been mulling over for awhile. I don’t have the answer and am hoping your responses will help provide some clarity.

In the 1980’s and 90’s there was great interest in the topic of vision. Countless books, articles, and studies addressed the topic.

However, in this current decade, I’ve noticed a ho-hum attitude about it and I’m curious why. I’ve heard some people say vision is an over-used term and others say the concept is out-dated. I’ve noticed a general lack of interest on the part of leaders at all levels. They might give it lip-service, but the basic message is. “OK, now let’s get back to business.”

HOWEVER studies of high performing organizations show over and over again that shared vision is one of the key differentiators.

And, when I ask people to recall the best organization or team they have ever been associated with, they readily acknowledge the importance of a shared vision.

As more and more organizations are flattening their hierarchy and pushing authority and decision making down through the organization, it seems to me that shared vision is essential. Managers are more willing to let go of control and let others assume more responsibility when they are assured that others’ decisions are based on shared direction and values: a shared vision.

So my post today is a real question:

What are your thoughts on why leaders are less interested in vision today?


22 comments to What Happened to Vision? Your Thoughts?

  • I suspect that today’s tough economic climate has put many organizations into “survival mode” where almost anything that doesn’t have a clear and tangible link to revenue gets pushed aside. Focusing on vision is probably one of these.

    In the 80s and 90s we had a very strong economy. We also had, at least in the 1908s, the threat of “Japan Inc.” and their famous strength in long-term planning. Vision statements became part of the long-term planning playbook for many US-based companies during this time.

    The paradox here is when we discuss the failure of a company (think HP’s recent disasters for instance) or a government, one of the first shortcomings cited is a lack of vision.

  • Hi Jesse,

    Very pertinent question regarding something that is close to my heart. I am absolutely of the belief that you need a vision in order to reach the top of your game, as the countless studies you cite prove. Our entire approach with clients is to begin with a vision, and to then ‘backcast’ from there to decide upon the commitments that will get you there.

    However, to answer your question, I think there are a number of reasons why visions are often overlooked. Firstly, the meaning of a vision has become diluted, with long 10-15 year statements decided by the CEO and posted on the corporate website. “We strive to be the best ‘x’ in the world” is completely pointless as a vision. The only way to make this work is to co-create the vision with a mixture of members of the executive (who can make decisions) and those who are in direct contact with the customer on a daily basis (those in the ‘value zone’). We put a three year timescale on the vision, as that instills a sense of urgency, and most of the people in the room will still be around and held responsible if they don’t get there. We look at how the vision will affect every aspect of the business, and then we actually illustrate it professionally. After all, a vision should be visual right? If you can’t draw it, you most definitely won’t achieve it.

    Next, it is actually very hard to create a vision without a great process (obvious plug here being our product Route to Greatness™). The reason comes down to neuroscience, and explains why so many in-depth meetings end up with a whole host of flip chart notes being typed up and emailed round, with nothing ever being done about them. You need to break out of that cycle to create something powerful.

    However, people get fed up of hearing lots of nice words that don’t actually mean anything, so it is absolutely critical that you get commitment to it from the right people. Here is where a lot of businesses fall down. Having a vision is just the beginning, not the end! You cannot just push it down into the organisation and expect results. You need to make specific strategic choices about what you are going to do (and what you will stop doing), and ensure that those choices add up to reach your vision.

    For fear of writing a thesis as I could write about this all day, I will summarise by saying that a vision needs to be co-created by the right people from across the business, it needs to have a 3-5 year timescale and be very specific in its statement. You also need to get dedicated commitment to the goals, and have a great way of measuring the whole process to ensure you stay on track.

    Great question…

    • Hi Daniel, Two of your answers to my question jump out at me in particular: one is that there are now numerous generic visions on corporate websites that provide no guidance and the people rightly don’t see the value of the vision. The other is that people have gotten fed up after committing to a vision that then isn’t implemented. Many thanks for your helpful thoughts and detailed response.

  • fay kandarian

    In companies I work with, all have a published vision that most employees either know about or know how to access. Vision is now expected and strategic planning requires it so being clear about your vision is an essential part of being in business.

    Additionally, I hear more about “Visionary Goals” – goals that define the desired end state, and are such a stretch that they cannot not be immediately achieved. However, working towards the goals means moving towards the vision.

  • Hi Jesse,

    I wonder if organizations tried the “vision thing” and failed because they didn’t understand sustainable vision?

    My gut says, leaders go away to a retreat, create a vision to post on the wall and then forget it. When it doesn’t work organizations go on to the next flavor of the day leaving vision in the dust because it “didn’t work.”

    Best regards,

    Dan

  • Two things come to mind. First, the future is much less clear than it may have been 25 years ago. Defining a clear direction or picture of the future may be more difficult than it once was. In some industries, like high tech industries, it may be nearly impossible. Secondly, there may be a difference between “having a vision” and “defining a vision”. I wonder if many organizations today that exhibit organic growth do have vision, even if it is not well defined. While neither of these are good excuses, I think they might be relevant to the conversation.

    I also agree with Dan on this one. Vision may carry a bit of a 1985 stigma with it. Something we have “tried before”. Many current company leaders could have been middle managers during that time, witnessing the vision go on the wall and witnessing people ignore it while still making a profit. Of course vision is still relevant today, but maybe a different approach is needed. An approach that is a bit more “2012″ than “1985″. Maybe we need to talk about things like values, organic growth, learning, and culture a little more than vision, direction, and mission. Maybe we need to talk more about hiring people with shared vision, instead of delving out shared vision. Just a few thoughts from a “generation Y” guy. :)

    Micah Yost
    @GroupThrive

    • Hi Micah, You raise some interesting points here. If I understand you correctly, one is that interest in vision may be affected by the increase in the pace of change, so that it is more difficult to envision very far out. Another is that you think some people do have a vision but it is not necessarily expressed. The third is that younger manager language and methodologies that feel relevant to 2012. Much appreciation for sharing your thoughts. It’s very helpful to hear a “Gen Y” perspective.

    • Micah,

      I love the idea of exploring something more 2012 and less 1985!

  • Well said Dan! One of the legacies of 20th Century companies was that a small elite did most of the thinking. I like Peter Cammock’s 3Es model of leadership, envisioning, engaging, enacting. This stresses envisioning rather than vision, in that the vision is developed when engaging with others. A vision that doesn’t engage others is destined to remain a dream.
    regards,
    Peter

    • Hi Peter, So one of the reasons people have gotten turned off to the idea of vision is that the wrong process has been used to create it – relegating it to the elite and leaving the rest of the people out of the process results in a vision that does not engage the people and ultimately is ineffective. Makes sense!

  • Hi Jesse,

    We touched on this question a bit during our recent chat, but I wanted to use this opportunity to build on it. Essentially, what I see at issue is our growing tendency to focus on short-term objectives or goals, in large part because the old model of glacial change has given way to the business version of global warming where change is not only happening quicker, but it’s changing the rules by which we’re expected to operate.

    Of course, our current unwillingness or insistence that we can’t anticipate changes is more fear-based than an honest assessment that the business world is suffering from strong turbulence. Take, for example, the rumours of Kodak’s impending bankruptcy. Here is a company that clearly lacks a vision for why it remains relevant in a digital world. Certainly, the popularity of digital photography, along with the inclusion of cameras in smartphones, were not overnight events. Instead, they were changes which, while dramatic and game-changing, nonetheless took time for people to accept and adapt to.

    If Kodak does file for bankruptcy, it won’t be because people no longer see the need to rely on celluloid film to capture their memories. Rather, it was because Kodak no longer had a clear vision of how they fit into this new world, of how their company still had something unique to offer to the public. If anything, they were tied too much to their historical path instead of developing a vision plan to help them chart their future.

    • Hi Tanveer, Thanks so much for expanding on our recent conversation and offering a real life example of how it has played out for Kodak. Your point about the business version of global warming and insistence that we can’t think about the future because the nature of change has changed being fear-based makes a lot of sense.

  • Correct. Maybe we are bit to overwhelmed by our current pace of change to think about our future (a mistake, but possible.) Second, maybe organizations have a shared vision that is entrenched in their values and culture, but not fully stated. Third, possibly “re-branding” the idea could give it new life and energy (though its relevance has not changed).

  • I resonate with Dan about how people/organizations often jumped on the vision bandwagon (as on many other bandwagons) without a real purpose and without being willing to dig in and do it right. And I think Tanveer hits a key issue for vision (and, again, many other things) with his note about increasing emphasis on the short term. Both those are important, but I would add a third: we think about vision and action in the wrong order.

    The common presentation and the common order for most of the workshops and retreats I’ve experienced is to present vision first and then plan the actions to achieve it. I think that’s backward. My experience is that vision is more often a property that emerges from action and that human beings are more likely to act themselves into believing than the reverse. The companies that I’ve observed who have vibrant visions that inform action seem to me to have developed them after they struggled with their strategy and learned what works. In other words the vision described what they were doing and not what they would do.

  • I absolutely agree with the iterative part, Jesse. Most teaching on this goes from abstract to concrete and describes a straight line process. Reality is messier. It usually follows human nature and goes from concrete to abstract, with several loops back to refine things.

  • Jesse – I love this question!

    I believe that most organizations wrote a vision because it was the current trend.
    * In some cases the purpose and value was never really understood at an Executive Level.
    * In other cases it was not effectively aligned or communicated throughout the rest of the organization.
    * And in other cases it was referenced in marketing and organizational meetings, but never used to make organizational decisions.

    Your book references that less than 10% of the organizations you have visited have a clear sense of where they are trying to lead people. My experience just validates your data and emphasizes that visions were written, printed, hung on a wall and collected dust. Now when the word vision comes up people imagine spending hours to write something that appears to add no real value to their organization.

    Now back to your data. If the biggest impediment to managers becoming great leaders is the lack of a clear vision and less than 10% of organizations have a clear sense of where they are trying to lead people. Then it is possible that 90% of organizations and the people in them have never personally experienced the energy, the purpose, the teamwork, the synergy or results that come from a clear and motivating vision. If that is the case then one the biggest and most cost effective opportunities we have in our organizations and in our country is figuring out how to change that.

    A picture is worth a thousand words. What if…

    • Interesting, Chery. So your opinion is that after so many years of mis-use of the concept, people have given up on it. Makes sense. And unfortunately, as you point out, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Thanks so much for adding to the conversation!

  • Very interesting answers and in my mind they are all spot on. The short term chase is the primary problem. Management and Leaders are incentivised on short term achievements, hence they think on impact next quarter, not in the long run how do I get there. A vision, has a very big picture far away approach, which people are to impatient to strive for. The famous Investment Banker mentality before the dot com bubble (never mind 2008) was IBGYBG (I Be Gone You Be Gone). So people made decisions knowing they would not be accountable should something go wrong, as by the time it becomes a problem, they have been promoted elsewhere, together with their team members making the decision that was risky.

    I get where Micah is coming from saying the future is less predictable. I think it is more people’s lack of patience that is the issue so the future is just as unpredictable as it was back then, only today people don’t know how to “wait for the next best thing”. We are overwhelmed by a lot of information, creating a sense of urgency that is ill advised and are acting more on fear rather than based on desire. Fear of being left behind. People who don’t see value in a vision would rather just “do something” and we all know how that can result in two steps forward and three steps back due to lack of a bigger picture.

    The irony is as Joel noted, by not having a vision, turmoil was created, and now that same lot feel they have no time for a vision. Vision is more visible in the medium sized entreprises here in South Africa in my experience. The entrepreneurial spirit is there, and co-founders are still touching the business daily and excited by the magic they feel they have as a collective (with their staff). There may be an inability to articulate it clearly, but they lead by example to get their staff to jump on board and get on with it. The bigger corporates, where the leadership is not the co-founder or owner are the ones stuck in 1985 and not getting with the 2012 programme. I think Too Big To Fail is a problem, as Big is failing and Small much more effective.

    It is one of the qualities that was strong that Steve Jobs came with. He could do in a large corporate, what is typically done in a smaller enterprise. He had a vision. Apparently on his second run at Apple (1998), when asked what he was going to do next after he had whittled down their products to one from 15, his response to Richard Rummelt was “I am going to wait for the next big thing.”! That is being clear as there is a big difference between someone who is hustling and hunting for an opportunity and someone who is ready to exploit one.

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