There's an old proverb that says "Where there is no vision, people perish."
Unfortunately most company visions fall flat. They suffer from a lack of specificity. They are crammed full of vague language and industry jargon. They're designed by a committee, with the edges rounded off. If you were to remove their logo and swap a competitor's logo in, it's questionable whether anyone would notice.
For example, this is the actual vision statement from a large company most people would recognize:
“To create a shopping experience that pleases our customers; a workplace that creates opportunities and a great working environment for our associates; and a business that achieves financial success.”
Can you tell which company that is? Neither can their customers, their investors, or their team. And yet companies create visions like this all the time.
No wonder they don't galvanize the team. No wonder they don't get the owner excited to come into work every day. No wonder they don't create brand preference for customers.
A compelling vision vividly describes where the organization is going. What it's purpose is in the world. How it's trying to make the world better. It is something that they can feel proud to tell others about, that makes the inevitable difficulties they'll encounter worth it.
The benefits of a strong company vision.
Strong visions help companies in a number of ways.
A vision provides direction.
Creating a business is difficult. And it's not uncommon to be 2, 3, 10 years into your company and feel a malaise. You feel stuck. The company isn't "doing it for you."
Typically when you dig under the surface, you discover that those owners lack a strong, compelling vision (or that they failed to remind themselves of that vision at sufficient intervals). They started the company, perhaps around a skill they had, and things took on a life of their own. But the company wasn't designed, from the beginning, according to a vision. There was no picture of the business in the mind of the owner.
A vision isn't accomplished when you start the business. In fact, it’s often something you never completely accomplish. But it's the target you are aiming toward. It's your compass.
A vision facilitates decision making.
Success in business is often more about what you choose not to do rather than what you choose to do. Many businesses struggle with decision making and focus, and end up scattered in dozens of directions.
A strong vision provides clarity. When you know clearly what the business is trying to do, you have an objective criteria to use when evaluating potential opportunities.
This is important, because opportunities become abundant as you get traction. You bring in new people who have new ideas. You get approached by potential partners with exciting new possibilities.
You don't want your vision to be so restrictive that you ignore every opportunity that comes your way. There’s a good chance you’ll be in business for 10 years or more - think of what the world looked like 10 years ago and your mind will be blown.
But your vision can be the litmus test when evaluating those opportunities as they arise. "Does this help us get closer to our vision" can be an incredibly powerful question.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was famous for admonishing his team to remain stubborn on vision but flexible on details. That can be a really useful approach to thread this needle.
A vision provides your team with purpose.
Startup founders and small business owners are competing for talent. And they usually can't compete in terms of compensation or cool benefits. They're forced to compete on vision and values.
The good news is vision is incredibly powerful as a motivator. Behind every successful company is a small team of early employees who were believers in the vision. That belief is what allowed them to deal with the ambiguity and difficulty of an early business.
Dan Pink says people seek three things in their jobs - mastery, autonomy, and purpose. The vision provides that purpose. Makes them feel that their day aren't spent in meaningless drudgery. That their actions - their lives - matter.
Most people struggle to find that purpose themselves. As a result, a leader with a compelling vision can give them that gift.
How to cast a compelling vision.
So how does one go about crafting a vision that accomplishes these goals? Some suggestions:
You are responsible for the vision.
Intentional Owners realize the vision for the business is something they must own.
For one thing, your team wants that from you. While it's okay to get feedback from your team if you wish, you must be the final editor and sculptor of that vision. You must be the person who communicates to the organization, over and over again. Your team isn't looking for you to help them make the widgets. But they are definitely looking to you to cast the vision.
The other reason is it's the only way to ensure the business is helping you get what you want out of your own life. You certainly want to have a vision your team members are aligned with. But as we’ve discussed and you hopefully believe by now, the purpose of your business is to help you live the life you want. The vision should be a reflection of who you are and what you want. If it conflicts with your Life First Vision, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
The relationship between your vision and values.
As you probably have observed, there is a tight correlation between vision and values. Which begs the question: which comes first.
The reason we focused on values first is because a set of values can be consistent with any number of visions. But a vision often has a set of values implied in them.
Values govern behavior. Values further differentiate what it's like to work with you or for you. Values give people a chance to belong to a tribe. Alignment with values (assuming you actually live them out) creates tremendous pride for your team.
Some of your values won't directly relate to the why, but represent more how you do what you do. That's okay. But as you are crafting your vision, make sure it is consistent with your values.
Strong visions are ambitious.
It takes a strong vision to compel people to act. People are motivated if they feel they are making a meaningful impact on the world. And a part of that is usually scope. A company that changes the life of one customer is nice, but not particularly ambitious.
You want your visions to have relatively large aspirations. In Good to Great Jim Collins called it a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal - or BHAG. It’s something that makes people get excited. It’s not something that can be accomplished in 3 months or a year. It’s something that your team could point at and feel pride in. They could say, “I helped build that.”
Strong visions have a quantifiable component.
Ambitious visions usually are quantifiable in some way. It can serve as a yardstick, letting your team know they’re making progress toward the ultimate vision. For team members who are more competitive, it can provide them a “score” that tells them how the organization is doing.
Most commonly, this quantifiable component is expressed in terms of revenue or profitability. Sometimes it’s an employee headcount. Sometimes it can be the number of customers you’ve impacted which, if accomplished, has a corresponding revenue metric associated with it.
The great news is that we’ve already done this. The answer to this question is in your Exit Model. You likely saw the top line revenue number you needed to sell for that gasped a little bit. It almost certainly qualifies as ambitious. It’s a BHAG. And you know if you do it you will have accomplished your life vision.
Strong visions focus on why.
Simon Sinek wrote a fantastic book called Start With Why. In it he explains how most organizations focus their internal and external communication on the what of the business - the products or services they offer.
A smaller group of companies focus instead on how - the secret sauce or unique value proposition that enables them to do their what in a superior way. This is certainly better - it provides proof points for why a customr should choose one organization over another.
But the highest level is the why - it's the reason the company exists. And ideally it is captivating to customers and team members.
“People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”
The classic example was Apple. They made computers. They did it differently - exerting huge control over the form factor and creating their own operating system and supporiting software. But their why was to rethink the way we use technology. To make technology beautiful. As a result, when they branched into phones or watches or headphones, nobody batted an eye. Of course they did.
Compare that to Dell, which also made computers, and did so through an innovative, just in time supply chain. But nobody could tell you their why. If they made a watch people would likely have thought it odd.
Dell made computers. Apple made beautiful, intuitive technology. People owned Dell computers. People had a relationship with Apple.
As you create your vision, focus on your why. The why is where the magic lives. It's where you move from the head to the heart. It's where you create compelling differentiation in the minds of your customers and your team. It's what allows a company to persist for years in the face of adversity.
That said, it can actually be helpful when crafting your vision to start with the what. It's often easier for folks who struggle articulating their vision to start here, as the what is usually obvious. You create some momentum, and engage in an almost socratic process toward the truth. If it's helpful, feel free.
(I’ve found your values, coupled with the what and the why actually translate into the how. We’ll talk about this more in the Business Script, but these are the inputs that will facilitate the right frame of mind when designing a truly differentiated customer experience - your how.)
Powerful visions are vivid.
Often people trying to create a vision attempt to summarize it in a single sentence - like an elevator pitch of sorts. While we do want to create that to tie everything together and provide an “executive summary” of the vision, we’ve found truly compelling visions go into a lot more detail.
IBM founder Tom Watson understood this:
IBM is what it is today for three special reasons. The first reason is that, at the very beginning, I had a very clear picture of what the company would look like when it was finally done. You might say I had a model in my mind of what it would look like when the dream- my vision-was in place.
The second reason was that once I had that picture, I asked myself how a company which looked like that would have to act. I then created a picture of how IBM would act when it was finally done.
Third, once I had a picture of how IBM would look and how such a company would have to act, I realized that, unless we began to act that way from the very beginning, we would never get there.
As you do this exercise, try to picture in your mind as vividly as possible what your business would look like when it achieves the revenue target in your Exit Model (thereby accomplishing your life vision.)
Think about the values you created and the ways those values are lived out. What do your offices look like? How do your employees carry themselves? What does it feel like to work in your business day to day? Where are you geographically located?
We’ll update this over time as we design our Business Script. But it’s useful to start thinking about this in very vivid, sensory terms.
Obviously it won’t unfold like this. But the clearer you are about the details, the easier it can be to identify the gaps and how to close them. You will become more intentional about everything else you do.
The One Page Vision
Putting all of these principles together, we can create our One Page Vision. It includes a couple of components.
- Who - your ICP.
- What - your core offering, your delivery model, and your ideal customer profile.
- Where - your scope of operations.
- How - your unique delivery model. A high level, highly visual description of what it “feels” like interact with your company.
- Why - a summary of your core values, and/or what you believe about the world that necessitates you pursuing this vision.
- When - based on your Exit Model, ideally with a time frame for when you hope to accomplish it by.
- Summary - One or two sentences explaining why you exist. Can include elements of your core offering, your Ideal customer profile, and your why. Use powerful, compelling language on this.
This one page document is going to be the basis of a script you will use throughout your company. It will be a useful tool in your recruiting process. It will be part of your onboarding process. It will be used once a year (at least) in your all hands meetings.
As such, you want it to be extremely compelling. You want it be inspiring.