Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success
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A Vision Should Be Lived Not Laminated

At the heart of great cultures is an aspirational statement that ignites energy, motivation and passion. It’s a (very) short sentence of what the future looks like that – importantly – feels just a little bit out of reach.

It doesn’t describe outcomes, responsibilities or talk about taking over the world. It’s pragmatic, practical and personal and doesn’t need to be printed out and stuck up on a wall.

Vision statements should be easy to remember and exist at every level of an organisation, project, team, department and organisation. There should be conformance between them all, so that staff can draw a straight line between the work that they’re doing on a day-to-day basis and how it contributes to the success of the organisation.

If the vision is too aspirational (‘Best project in the world!’) then it could act as a demotivator. If it’s too wordy then it could confuse and disengage. Jason Fox said in his book The Game Changer  that ‘...you should be able to put your vision on a t-shirt’. Nothing memorable contains over 15 words. 

My personal favourite vision statement used to be Disney’s. It was ‘Make People Happy’. Aspirational given the multiple interactions that they have and yet, just a little bit out of reach because you can’t please everyone! I say ‘used to be my favourite’ because they changed it a couple of years back to this, ‘To be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information’. Which one resonates more with you?

One of the biggest mistakes organisations make is to bring in consultants or design agencies to work with their senior managers (only) on crafting a vision statement. This kind of activity sends a message to the rest of the staff that senior management own the vision and everyone else has to live it. An email is sent to everyone telling them what it is, often with some slick marketing materials, and they’re encouraged to print it off as a reminder. When this happens, it makes it very easy for the staff to think or say ‘I haven’t been involved in this, so it means nothing to me’.

Making this a senior-management only activity is an old-fashioned quick-fix approach to culture in the same way that going open plan is and often the people involved in its creation do little to prove that it actually means anything to them. It then becomes seen as an activity that the organisation undertook because they thought they should or because someone told them they should. Rather than being a critical annual exercise that’s required to continually refresh the aspirations of the organisation and move it forward.

Cultures are the sum of everybody, not just senior management, therefore (representatives of) everyone need to be involved in the creation of the vision. It’s a process I teach as part of my culture programs and takes 45-60 minutes to complete. Once you know how to do it, you never forget it. You also understand the importance of the vision and how to ‘use’ it every day.

The vision should inform every decision, with managers continually asking themselves ‘does this activity align to our vision?’. If not, then the activity should be stopped. If it does, then its importance should be assessed alongside existing initiatives before deciding how to proceed.

The Project Management Institute’s Pulse of the Profession report in 2018 found that almost a third of projects were considered to have failed as a result of a poor vision statement.

Refreshing the vision (and the culture) is especially important if the organisation is moving towards more flexible ways of delivering or new ways of working. McKinsey identified this in its paper How to create an agile organisation in 2017. Being clear on the vision is one of the three principles for a successful transition.

Similarly Bain noted in its paper Orchestrating Successful Digital Transformation that these initiatives not only need a vision of their own but that ‘everyone remains committed to it’.

An inspirational vision statement is also a great hiring tool. People often join organisations and teams as a result of their aspirations and it’s a great way to check that potential employees share the same dreams and understand what it will take to get there.

A vision statement is central to building and evolving a great culture and when you have one it’s essential that everyone lives it and doesn’t just laminate it.