Thursday, May 17, 2012

What can you tell me about vision statements? - signed N. Lightened

Dear N: 

Let's start with the biblical proverb: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." Somewhere in the mist of long forgotten time, that particular proverb was adapted to fit a business audience. In today's world of corporate communications, it now reads "Where there is no vision, the company will perish."

Sooner or later, you're going to have to deal with a client's vision statement. This should help prepare you for that exciting day...

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you ever get there?

Virtually every company has a vision—a set of scared words that frame the guiding idea for the company’s future. Kevin Clancey and Peter Krieg, authors of the book Counterintuitive Marketing, define vision this way: “…a vision is a hope, a goal, a dream; it incorporates the values of the company (or entrepreneur), and it implies benefit for customers. A powerful vision looks outward… [it] expresses the end. It expresses what the company wants to be in the future.”

The authors of Strategy Safari, A Guided Tour Through The Wilds of Strategic Management put it more academically. “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.” 

To which I say, don’t bet on it.

We will increase our profits to maintain our position in the EU and NAFTA markets (and other inspiring words from corporate America).

Okay, enough about what a vision is. Let’s jump to something more critical: how to distinguish a true vision from a false one. 

The majority of business visions are inherently false. So assert the authors of The Visionary’s Handbook. “Virtually every vision statement we have ever seen is not a statement about the future but a projection forward beyond the present of an idealized past, an idealized workforce, an idealized marketplace functioning perfectly in an idealized and unchanging economy,” they write.

 In other words, false visions tend to uphold a company’s past performance and glory rather than move the company forward to new opportunities. 

The authors of Counterintuitive Marketing stated it this way: “We’ve combed through 400 annual reports, studied more Web sites than we ever planned to, borrowed from the Stanford study by Collins and Porras, and interviewed CEOs, CMOs, brand managers, and communications executives as part of ongoing marketing engagements.

“The most basic finding from our our work is that most companies do not have much of a vision.” 

Of the corporate vision statements that they did study: “...most of them sounded the same. It is as if the writers and crafters of corporate and brand visions all attended the same seminar—and not a very original one at that.”   

A false vision usually defines what a company is, not what a company can be. Fortunately, false visions are easy to spot. Just look for high “Talking-to-Yourself” content. (By the way, the headline above came from an actual vision statement that I found on the Web.) 

What do bullet points have to do with it?

Absolutely nothing. Bullet points belong in white papers, not vision statements. A company’s vision should be compelling enough (and short enough) for you to remember it without having to write it down.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in the real world. Search on the phrase “vision statement” in Google and you’ll be rewarded with page after page of visions like this one:

The Acme Company's Vision Statement:

  •  In our chosen markets, we are the leader in client satisfaction, professionalism, superior quality and innovation.
  •  We are the architect of responsive and creative solutions to our clients' benefit, compensation and human resources needs.
  • Our teams combine technical excellence with a superior understanding of client needs and the environment in which our clients operate.
  •  We are committed to working partnerships with our clients that add value and consistently exceed expectations.
Compare that to these two short statements. The first is from Master Lock:

“To become the total security company to which people turn for the finest security products and services.”

The second is from Qualidigm, a process-management consultancy:

“To add Qualidigm to the business-to-business vocabulary of the 21st Century.”

Short doesn’t always guarantee a true vision.  Take General Motor’s vision:

“Our vision is to be the world leader in transportation products and related services.” 

Of course, we know how that turned out.

There are hybrid statements out there, too. They jumble vision, mission, culture and values together. They are longer in form, but effective and full of genuine, readable language. Sony and Virgin provide two good examples:

“Sony is a company dedicated to the celebration of life.
We create things for every kind of imagination.
Products that stimulate the senses and refresh the spirit.
Ideas that always surprise, and never disappoint.
Innovations that are easy to love, and effortless to use.
Things that are not essential, but hard to live without.
We're not here to be logical. Or predictable.
We're here to pursue infinite possibilities.
We allow the brightest minds to interact freely, so the unexpected can emerge.
We invite new thinking, so even more fantastic ideas can evolve.
Creativity is our essence.
We take chances. We exceed expectations.
We help dreamers dream.”

This was Sony back in 2003. Times change. Visions change.

 “If there’s a philosophy that runs through every Virgin company, it’s the desire to be different by being better. Better quality, better service and better value. And to this tradition of doing it with a bit of style and having fun along the way and if there ever was one, you’d have the Virgin business ethos.” 

What does Dilbert have to do with it?

In 1997, Scot Adams, the creator of Dilbert, donned a disguise and passed himself off as a consultant to a group of key executives at Logitech International (with the help of Logitech co-founder and vice chairman Pierluigi Zappacosta). The executives were told that Mr. Adams was there to help them draft a new mission statement for Logitech's New Ventures Group. After several hours of Mr. Adams’ guidance, here’s what the group came up with:    

"The New Ventures Mission is to scout profitable growth opportunities in relationships, both internally and externally, in emerging, mission-inclusive markets, and explore new paradigms and then filter and communicate and evangelize the findings."

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