A vision without a plan and people is just a pipe dream. A great vision will always accelerate your career and your business: you either succeed fast or fail fast.
Aside from being charismatic, inspirational, motivational, great in crises, strategic, and brilliant, leaders are also expected to be visionary. Some leaders think they tick all these boxes. They are the leaders who are well worth not working for.
The need for a vision results in more corporate garbage than is good for your health. Most vision statements seem to come from an app which randomly mixes up words and phrases such as “excellence, global, customers, shareholder, staff, best in class, entrepreneurial, trusted…”. If you have time on your hands, create an app to do this well and you will make a fortune and save firms much time and effort.
So how do you come up with a vision? Dr Martin Luther King Jr nailed it with his “I have a dream…” speech. Do not copy him. If you feel like standing on your desk on Monday morning and announcing to the office “I have a dream…” you might find that to be a career limiting move. Fortunately, there is a better way. You do not even have to be visionary to have a vision.
A good vision is no more than a story in three parts. If you can tell a story, you can craft a vision. Here are the three parts:
This is where we are going. As a leader, you are a peddler of hope. You have to give everyone a belief that you are taking them to a better future. You have to show what is going to be different and better as a result of your vision. This does not have to be about changing the world. It can be something simple, like increasing customer satisfaction; getting it right first time, every time; reducing time to market.
This is how we will get there. Leaders offer more than hope: they offer clarity and certainty. This is especially important in times of crisis and uncertainty. If you look uncertain, doubt and panic will ripple through your team. Show what happens next: find some simple first steps. Complexity can come later in the detailed plan.
This is what it means for you. Grand visions such as increasing shareholder value do not mean much to the toilet cleaner. Show how each person will be affected by the vision and what they can do to make it happen. Make each team member feel that they have an important part to play in success. This part of the vision is the most motivational, and the hardest work. You have to customise your vision for each team member.
If your vision is strong and clear, there is a risk that you will appear to be visionary, motivational, and perhaps even inspirational and charismatic. You will be the leader people want to follow, rather than the boss they have to follow. All you have to be able to do is to tell a good story.
The challenge is to make sure your story is a good one. For this, we can turn to President Kennedy. His vision was, famously, to put a man on the moon and bring him back alive again within 10 years. It was a crazy vision that seemed undoable. On 20 July 1969, Mr Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon for the first time and turned the impossible into reality. President Kennedy’s vision had inspired a nation and changed the world.
President Kennedy’s vision was all about winning the space race against the Soviet Union. And today’s Russia gives the acronym by which you can test the power of President Kennedy’s vision and your story. Here is what RUSSIA stands for:
Relevant. Your vision has to deal with a relevant challenge or opportunity. In President Kennedy’s case, the Russians had put the first satellite in space and the first man in space. America was losing the war for space and needed to catch up. The vision was highly relevant.
Unique. Try putting the name of another firm, team, or organisation into your vision statement. If your vision could be used elsewhere, then it is unlikely to be unique, compelling, or relevant. Microsoft would find it hard to use President Kennedy’s vision.
Stretching. The best visions are ambitious. If your ambition is to have a quiet life, you probably should not be a leader. President Kennedy’s vision stretched technology and the nation, and he made of virtue out of that: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills”. A stretching vision brings out the best in you and your team.
Simple. We all have busy lives, and the chances are that your vision is somewhat less important than buying cat food. Your colleague’s cat will survive without your vision, but will not survive without food. So if you have a vision which takes one hour of powerpoint presentation to communicate, you have lost. Your vision has to be simple. Think of all those consumer contests where you have to complete a tie-breaker saying, in not more than 12 words, why Sudso is brilliant. Your vision should be no more than 12 words. If it is not simple, it is not memorable; if no one remembers your vision, then no one will act on it. President Kennedy’s vision passed the simplicity test with ease: we can remember it even 60 years later. Putting a man on the moon was exceptionally complicated. Your vision does not have to deal with the detail and complexity: that comes later.
Individualised. This is where you have to show what the vision means for each person on your team. Show that they have a vital role to play. Even the toilet cleaners can have a vital role. If your firm is all about excellence and customer focus, then suddenly the toilets become really important. Visitors who see pristine facilities will believe your vision; if they are grubby, you lose all credibility.
Actionable. If your vision is to make the world a better place, that sounds nice but is useless. What are we meant to do tomorrow morning and every morning afterwards to make that happen? In contrast, President Kennedy announced a very specific goal which was time-bound. A good vision will tell your team what they should do; it will also tell them what they should not do. A vision effectively sets out the priorities for the team to follow.
If you have crafted a good vision, you will find another surprising test of a good vision: you will generate opposition to your idea. A strong vision makes clear choices and changes the world. Inevitably, you will find people who doubt you and challenge you. They will claim that you are not leading them to the Promised Land, but you are leading them straight out into the desert again. You have to be the evangelist that never tires of advocating your vision. If you are not passionate about it, no one else will be passionate for you.
The power of the vision is seen with NASA. It achieved the impossible with the original moon mission. Even disasters, including several Gemini missions and the loss of astronauts, did not deter them. The goal and the deadline were clear. Look at what has happened since then. NASA’s mission is not immediately clear to most people on the street. As a result, it has lost its way. It has had triumphs like Hubble and disasters like Challenger, but it does not have the clear direction it had in its early days.
As a test, you might want to compare and contrast two vision statements. The first is this: “Our mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.” This is a statement which even the United Nations might find grandiose. Who is empowering every person on the planet? A self-help group? A new religion? A maker of energy drinks? A political rights group? And what, in practice, are you meant to do about it? Microsoft should have all the answers to this, as it is their mission.
Contrast Microsoft’s statement with this one: “To provide access to the world’s information in one click.” This is also an outrageously ambitious vision statement. But it passes the RUSSIA test. It is relevant in that it meets a need; it is unique because only Google is focussed on this goal; it is wildly stretching and very simple to remember; it can probably be made relevant to each Googler’s work and is clearly actionable. It drives Google to do slightly crazy things such as Google street view.
Having a clear vision is not a guarantee of success. For the vision to succeed, you need two more elements. First, behind each visionary you need an army of komissars (a commissary) who make sure that the trains run on time and the vision is actually achieved. A vision without a plan and people is just a pipe dream.
Second, you need to make sure that the vision takes you in the right direction. You will only know that after the event. In practice, a great vision will always accelerate your career and your business: you succeed fast or you fail fast.
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