Vision has been written about and talked about extensively. By now, it is either revered as the most important attribute of a leader, or it has become an object of cynicism as a result of overuse. What is vision? Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, great teacher-leaders, deined it this way:
A vision articulates a view of a realistic, credible, attractive future for the organization; a condition that is better in some important ways than what now exists.2
Of course, a vision is “better in some important ways than what now exists” only if the leaders are able to inluence their followers to accept their view of the future. A leader's view or perception needs to become a reality for her followers.
Vision is what differentiates leaders from everyone else. It is a description of something different from what is current – something no one else has achieved. It is an understanding shared by all who are part of the organization. It answers this question: “What will the organization become?” Vision is a picture of the organization's future that serves the interests of all important stakeholders: customers, employees, and society.
Let us consider some examples of visions written for organizations that are quite different from each other. The irst is from a company called EcoSynthetix.
To be one of the world's leading technology and market developers of biobased materials through value-added substitution of fossil-based products. Our enterprise will beneit society as a result of our products being sustainable based on green chemistry and a reduced carbon footprint.
Broadly speaking, vision statements come in two generic forms. One form speaks to an ideal world and indicates what a perfect world would look like, and this company's vision statement is clearly one of these. In this vision statement EcoSynthetix perceives its ideal future state.
The second broad type of vision describes not an ideal world, but an ideal organization. There are many such statements. I provide an example to illustrate this approach. This one is from a biofuels company called Biox.
Our company will build, acquire, own and operate a network of biodiesel production facilities, utilizing our proprietary process technologies capable
2 Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge (New York: HarperCollins, 1985), 82. of producing the highest quality biodiesel fuel in jurisdictions where clearly deined renewable fuel standards policies exist. Our goal is to be the leading value-added integrated supplier to the existing fuel distribution network.
Each of these companies is looking into their future in different ways. Both are young, innovative engineering and science intensive organizations. In chapter 2, in the section “Thinking about Future States,” I made a distinction between two boundary conditions. First, a plan is a future state that is very actionable and second, an aspiration is a statement of a future state that is more philosophical. And vision is somewhere between these two boundaries. The Biox vision is clearly leaning towards the plan boundary, but it is not speciically a plan, but it is a conceptual vision of their future. EcoSynthetix chose a statement, a vision that is close to an aspiration.
The importance of vision cannot be overemphasized. A clear vision allows everyone to rally around a common direction, even in crises. It serves as an anchor in turbulent times. It helps the organization to see what could be and should be, and it provides guidance and inspiration for the dificult work that is necessary to achieve a better future.
A vision must strike a balance between vagueness and speciics. It needs to be speciic enough to provide clear guidance to the organization and relevant enough to be achievable. Perhaps most important, it must also inspire. At the same time, though, it must be vague enough to allow people to turn their imaginations towards an improved future state. It also needs to be vague enough to appeal to all kinds of people, to different functional categories of people, and to people with different levels of will and openness to change.
And inally, a vision needs to be relevant under a variety of future conditions. This is an important point. Visions or future states cannot and should not be rewritten every few months. If they are not fairly permanent, they will lose their impact as thoughtful descriptors of a future target. It is appropriate to rewrite a vision statement when a much more inspirational direction is called for. But rewriting according to a whim would cause the resulting words to lose their potency as a teaching and learning tool.
I know all of this to be true for the two companies I have used to illustrate this section. I am the chairman of the board for each company and see the leaders of these young evolving companies, one an engineer the other a scientist, and how they use these statements to guide their actions as they seek to succeed. How to Develop Vision for the Organization
This section describes an approach to thinking about and writing a vision. Developing a viable vision of an organization's future is hard work. It is also both creative and labour intensive. And it is important work.
The approach outlined below has four steps. I do not mean these steps to be prescriptive – there is no single correct way. This section will be useful if it serves as a starting point for the ultimate goal; it will be useful if the steps encourage you to think about, collaborate on, document, and communicate a vision that is appropriate to your organization. The goal is allimportant; the means are open-ended. With that caveat, there are four steps for you to consider.
The Organizational Leader Assumes Accountability
The leader envisions a future state. This is a personal creative process. The leader assumes accountability for the idea and then assumes accountability for the process that will move that idea towards a viable vision for the organization.
It is vital that the organization's leader formulate a personal view of the future based on his own beliefs and on his own insights into the organization and himself. It is the organizational leader who senses the need for change and who initiates it, so he needs to own the visioning process.
In each of the previous examples of visions for these young companies, I can say with assurance that the words represent the will, being, and function of the leader-founder.
The Organizational Leader Gathers Information and Wisdom
Key to the organizational leader's role as the “owner” or initiator of the vision is selecting a group of “thought leaders” to help him move the process along. A thought leader by deinition is someone in the organization who
• knows a great deal about the organization and its history and culture,
• is highly respected by certain segments of the organization,
• has signiicant skills and character attributes of a role model leader, and
• is respected by and respects the capabilities of the organizational leader.
These thought leaders are formed into a working group whose purpose is to assist the organizational leader. They do so by offering opinions on all aspects of the future state idea and researching backgrounds that are
pertinent to the idea, and by engaging – under the leaders' direction – in a
systematic approach to developing the idea towards a credible future state direction for the organization. It is important to understand at this stage that plans are not being made – rather, ideas are being clariied. This is strategic thinking, not strategic planning.
The Words Are Generated
This is an important step in the visioning process. It is best to make it fun. The thought leaders will all have their own ideas. This is where the visionary leader will need to listen, feel, and sense when the words are good and right. “Good” here means that they relect the future as seen by the leader; “right” means that the words all have meaning and call for action. The words are also right because they are easily understood and meaningful rather than empty.
As part of this process of generating words, it is often useful to write a thorough description of the organization's current state. This will allow everyone to see the clear gap between the current state and the future one (i.e., the vision). Everyone will believe they know the current state well and will be surprised at how useful it was to write it down. Also, a clear description of the current state will make it easier to develop a gap analysis – that is, an analysis of the work that will need to be done by the people in the enterprise to move from the current to the future state.
Also important to this “generate the words” part of the process is deciding on and implementing a format for the vision as well for its supporting documentation. A strong vision statement is short, clear, and succinct and appeals to all stakeholders.
The vision statement must be appealing, and it must be marketable. It must be able to inspire and inluence many people from a variety of places. Words, clearly, are important.
The Vision Is Made to Work
Once steps 1, 2, and 3 are complete, the really hard work begins – the work of communicating the vision to the stakeholders and inluencing all of them to move in a new direction. This is where the character attributes and learned skills of leaders become critically important.
The need is to align people to a common purpose and to ensure that the relevant people share a common understanding of the new direction. The word relevant is important. Especially in a complex organization, it is unrealistic to expect that everyone will be able to align their interests with a transformational change. That should still be the goal – all people aligned – but realistically, it often isn't possible, at least immediately. So the role
model leader of transformational change must expect to engage in ongoing teaching and learning.
In DuPont Canada, our future state target was aspirational: Everyone a Leader. This was a vague and dificult message for everyone to understand at the beginning of the transformation. To facilitate the communication, we created a small group of highly competent, highly motivated experts and communicators in the “technology” of the developmental leadership philosophy. Those people, most of them engineers, had regular jobs. They were process engineers, plant operators, maintenance experts, and so on. There were perhaps a dozen of them. I referred to them as “teachers,” and their task was to learn at a deep level and then to communicate, inspire, and teach when the opportunity presented itself. They were often asked by teams and groups to engage in facilitating learning where it was appropriate. These people were highly instrumental in making it implementable for Everyone (to be) a Leader of future state direction.