One more time with feeling – are there benefits in setting a vision for your organisation?

Many Australian CEOs are wary of setting grandiose strategic visions for their organisations. They don’t believe there is much value added to the business. And those that do use vision statements, often resort to rather generic statements like “being the best” or “creating shareholder value”. These don’t add much value for the people in the organisation either.

My work in the field of future strategy suggests three key problems in the way we use vision statements – and this may contribute to some of the cynicism that they often attract.

Firstly, vision statements are often somewhat generic and don’t relate to the specific nature of the organisation’s business. Vision statements need to pass an acid test to be useful – ie we should NOT be able to remove the name of our organisation from the top of the statements, replace it with another, and still have it make sense. So, to state that you want to offer the “best service” and be the “leading supplier of..” does not define your core purpose and the way you operate. Vision statements need to reflect the essence of your business – you need to be able to recognise the very DNA of the organisation in the way the vision statement is crafted.

Secondly, the vision statement should have the ability to impact on people’s behaviour – it should offer them guidance on how they should act or make difficult decisions. Vision statements that emphasise financial outcomes serve little purpose other than to motivate the few senior leaders that are rewarded on the profitability of the business. People don’t get out of bed to increase shareholder returns or improve asset utlisation – they are motivated by a desire to serve their customers or make a difference to the community they are part of. In any event, the purpose of a business is NOT to make a profit – this is simply one measure of how effective it has been in meeting its purpose.

Thirdly, if the vision statement includes a section on core values, these have to be carefully selected again to reflect the business of the organisation. Values that emphasise “innovation” and “change readiness” in an organisation where the strategy emphasises accuracy and efficiency is not only misleading – it may actually be counter-productive and result in destructive behaviour. In addition, I am suspicious of the “ten commandments” type values where things like “honesty” and “integrity” are listed. We should be able to take these for granted if we are decent human beings. If we can’t, it makes me wonder what types of behaviour occur normally within those organisations. Furthermore, these generic values offer little support for the particular strategy or way we seek to do business in the organisation.

In his latest book that examines the nature of successful organisations, Jim Collins (Great by Choice) reinforces the contribution made by clear statements of strategic vision and values. These are powerful tools for leaders wishing to improve the performance of their organisations – but they must be done right!

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