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Is vision relevantIn 2011, I asked What Happened to Vision? It generated a fascinating, thought-provoking conversation.

When presenting my question, I had noted:
Studies of high performing organizations show over and over again that shared vision is one of the key differentiators. 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. And yet, there seems to be a ho-hum attitude toward vision these days.

Now in 2016, I find myself asking the question again: Is vision relevant today? There seems to be even more of a short-term focus and even less interest in vision.

Was George Bush ahead of his time when he dismissed “The Vision Thing?” Or are we missing an important opportunity to focus and mobilize our organizations and teams?

Often the comments are better than my blog post, and that’s the case with my 2011 post. I have shared some of the comments below so you can benefit from their insights.

And I’d like to invite you to join an updated conversation for 2016. What still applies and what has changed?

Insights from 2011

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
    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’).
    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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,

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    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…

  10. 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.

What’s changed over the past five years? Is vision relevant in 2016?

Do the comments in the 2011 conversation still apply to today’s world?
Do you think leaders today are interested in vision or has it become an outdated idea?
I would love to hear your thoughts!

Photo credit: Noah Zemel ©2014
Take Down Your Corporate Ladder and Support Career Disruption
"Forgive and Live" to Increase Personal Mastery

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