Designing Vision Statements

Oh no! Another post about vision statements. Well, maybe you are right, but still I hope to prove you wrong. There are dozens of sources, true. And I found out that each source sheds light on some pieces of the puzzle and neglects others. I did my research, I collected, sorted in/out, edited, and now I want to share my insights with you. That is the best way that I know to organise my own thoughts. Maybe it’ll help you organising yours.

What Is a Vision?

The vision is a useful tool to provide focus in a group of people to align decisions towards a common goal.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” (attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery).

That is what a vision statement is supposed to do. You do not micromanage and tell everyone what to do. Instead you give everyone something to aspire for by drawing a picture of what the world will look like once your mission is fulfilled. The vision provides stability and continuity in the chorus of voices in your organisation (or organisational unit).

In my own personal multiverse a vision is the carrier of a story. It is the story of an imagined future. It enables us. It gives us a sense of direction and stability. As individuals the story makes us capable of taking action and making decisions. As organisations it aligns everybody to act in a purposeful way.

Such stories are everywhere, even — or I should say — especially in business. Many times I heard about business being cool, calculating, rational, and thus predictable. But that is just another story that shall convince us to be optimistic. Stories play an essential role in innovation or investment decisions (e.g. Beckert, 2019). A vision concentrates many aspects of a story and focuses them. That is how vision statements become powerful on many levels. Most often they are being applied to whole organisation. Every unit in your organisation can use a vision to specify how they intend to contribute to the overall vision. This way it can also guide in-house service providers or product development (McGreal & Jocham, 2018; Babajee-Pycroft, 2019), and stimulate a user “experience vision to aspire to” (Spool, 2014).

The Anatomy of a Vision Statement

Audience

A vision statement contains a message that we send to an audience. Be aware of your audience before you start writing. It sounds trivial but it is not. I saw so many marketing slogans being discussed as vision statement. BMW’s well-known statement “the joy of driving” is a marketing claim, not a vision statement. The audience of a claim are the customers. According to Comparably (a service company offering insight about companies) BMW’s vision statement rather is “to be the most successful premium manufacturer in the industry”. That would be disappointingly thin, pale and useless. That might be somewhat interesting for investors and shareholders but it certainly misses over 100.000 employees. And even many business stakeholders will consider it uninformative because who does not want to be the best?

A vision statement is one of many messages an organisation sends out. But unlike a brand claim or a marketing slogan, the vision statement has an internal audience. It is not particularly designed to address customers or users of the organisation’s offerings. The vision statement is for those who have a fundamental interest in the organisation itself. Most of all these are the members of the organisation. Next in line are other organisations with interest in a partnership. Finally, also investors or shareholders can benefit from a vision but they are a rather negligible addressee. Who is your audience?

Goals

All in all, “a vision statement serves as your organisations’ north star” (Schooley, 2019). It is an internal communications tool that helps align and inspire your team to reach the organisation’s goals. In order to do that successfully, you need to achieve several goals. In other words, a vision statement must have the potential to affects peoples’ decisions in your organisation. The purpose of the vision statement is to inspire people in a way that they help achieve the described outcome. A vision statement is supposed to be highly motivational. But more importantly, the vision statement can get you out of a reacting mode into acting mode. It drives us to find ways to work towards the vision instead of replicating behaviour in the past (Lucas, 1998).

In order to do that, the vision shall be built on the strengths of your organisation. What can you do better than others? Where do you want to be better than others in the future? What makes you special in a way that it helps you strengthen your position? This is where you start.

In the end the vision statement shall provide guidance in many peoples’ decisions every day. What kind of people should we hire? Shall we do this product? Shall we invest in knowledge about blockchain or rather in design? Is it okay to be a bit more aggressive in our marketing campaign?

The Messages in the Statement

As a carrier of a longer story a vision statement holds several messages. Not all of these can be addressed explicitly. Some of it must stay between the lines. Check your vision statement in what way these components are present. You can use it as a heuristic to evaluate and refine your vision.

  • Clarify the organization’s purpose and direction.
    What is the outcome of what you do? BMW builds cars. But their claim suggest that they want to do so much more. What is the value you intend to create? And forget about the economic value for the organisation itself. Focus on the people who are supposed to benefit from your offerings.
  • Reflects the uniqueness of the organization.
    Be in line with the organisation’s history, culture, and the organization’s values.
  • Set standards of excellence by describing an ideal situation in the future.
    There must be something that you intend to be extremely good at. At least clearly better than everybody else. A vision statement is always ambitious, otherwise you do not need it.
  • A vision statement must be catalytic in a sense that it “implies, encourages and infuses movement” (WellConnected, 2017). Readers should feel that they have been called to action. Hence, a vision statement must have the potential to address peoples’ needs to contribute to something that is worth achieving.
  • A vision statement must be contextual.
    What does the organisation do for your specific people, time and place? What role does the organisation want to play? What are the values behind it? And most of all, who is being served and what do they need?
  • In an agile and user-centered working environment I also recommend that the vision emphasizes working together.

Formal Aspects of the Writing

  • It is written in the present, not future tense.
    The vision statement describes something that we want to achieve in the future. However, its intention is to guide our actions from now on. We do not want the vision statement to be perceived as something that is far from reach, that would affect us only sometime in the future. Instead, the goal is to make the vision become alive now.
  • Be unambiguous.
    The vision has to indicate direction. It cannot be generic. It cannot include everyone and everything. Strive for one thing and accept that focus always goes at the expense of everything that is out of focus. You need other means to handle the complexity of your organisation.
  • Clarity. Is the language clear enough for everyone to understand.
    The vision must be easy to understand for everyone in the organisation. Also consider applicants and other outsiders. Do not use business speak or technical terms.
  • Conciseness. Is it brief enough that it can be stated in one breath?
    A vision statement must be memorable. To do that it must be short. A vision statement shall make an impression. For that it must be short. If you cannot define your vision within less than two to three sentences, you may not have clarified your true objectives well enough. “Clear visions directly point at a prime goal. They can be understood without extended presentation and discussion, often in five minutes” (Kantabutra & Avery, 2010).
  • Be emotional and active
    …rather than correct and formal. People should be able to relate to what it says. You can use action verbs like “influence”, “serve”, “go”, “restore”, “mobilize”, “advance”, or “plant.”

So far everything sounds so easy. Just follow these rules and you will have a great vision statement. We wish! The challenges lurking in between the lines are the contradictions. Make it short but make sure you include context. Be unambiguous and, yet, not specific. Provide substance in five words. There is always a trade-off. Keeping the balance between all these pieces of advice is what makes the “art” in writing a good vision statement. Here are a few Don’ts that may tell you when the balance gets lost.

Avoid this

Do not try to be efficient. The reason for brevity in your vision statement is not efficiency. It is clarity and memorability. Sometimes clarity requires more words. Put clarity over brevity.

Do not try to be S.M.A.R.T. (Doran, 1981). The vision comes into play when you cannot be S.M.A.R.T. Hence, it is not a business objective with clearly measurable outcomes and so it can never be fully achieved. A vision always stays abstract to some degree (Kirkpatrick, 2016). That is why I would always avoid numbers. They might be used in a symbolic manner but in business any number will most likely be misunderstood as an attempt to be S.M.A.R.T.

Let us not define business objectives at all. Do not tell everyone that you want to lead the market, make the biggest profit, etc. Not only is it trivial for a for-profit organisation. Everybody wants to increase profit, wants to be the first in the market, or wants to be a great place to work. These things seem to say everything but end up saying nothing. And still more importantly, there are so many outside influences that you cannot control. Focus on what you can control and what you want to contribute to the world. That is what can affect decisions in a meaningful way.

Of course, implicitly a vision is based on a time frame. The exact time frame will vary by organization. Consider, for example, how long your innovation cycles are, how aggressive the competition is, or past performance of your organisation may also be useful. Most likely you end up with a time frame between 3 to 10 years. Still avoid including the time frame in the statement. A vision should not have a best before date. There are too many moving parts affecting your progress and the vision shall inspire everyone not pressure them. Just imagine the effects on your organisation when the deadline moves nearer but the target still seems out of reach!

Be ambitious with your vision. But not too ambitious that it seems unachievable.

But most of all, keep everything out of the vision statement that is obvious or well-known in your audience. A vision statement is always a painstaking process. In many cases the people involved settle for the “lowest common denominator”. Such vision statements are often useless. They are not daring or challenging. Do not be afraid of a vision statement that is distinct, daring, maybe even slightly disagreeable. A vision statement cannot provide guidance if it reflects just some generic goal that everybody can agree with. It is likely to produce mediocre results (e.g. Schooley, 2019).

The Statement Becomes a Vision

The vision is only effective in peoples’ heads. Of course, a vision statement on paper is worth nothing and unless a critical mass of the addressees has internalized it and takes it to heart, the vision will remain the dream of a few. It only becomes alive over time triggered at many touch points initiated by disseminators.

It all starts with the creation of the vision statement. The statement is the result of a long learning process. In fact, you may find that this process is even as valuable to you and the company as the vision statement itself is, because you will not only get a brief statement but a much richer understanding of your organisation. It is a time-consuming process but it is worth taking your time.

At a later stage of the process you formally communicate the vision. Now the vision becomes alive and it is your task to supervise it’s growth and give it guidance.

Creation Step 1: Understand

Depending on the purpose of your vision statement (company, product or UX vision) you need different kinds of information. Here are suggestions, starting with organisational context: the organisation’s core values, purpose, (brand) promises, also strengths and weaknesses. For strengths and weaknesses you may also want to take a look at your portfolio. After that, move on to the people you want to win over. You need intimate knowledge about customers and/or users. Do you have validated artefacts like journey maps or personas? If not, gather more information and translate them into easily communicable artefacts. Furthermore, what do you know about your competitors? What makes you special compared to them?

Go out and observe people. Talk to them. Go beyond interpretations people give you and ask for the facts that these interpretations are based on. Sources of information can be interviews with employees and stakeholders inside your organisation, with experts outside your organisation; combine interview techniques with observation when meeting potential customers and users. Not everything has to be gathered in face-to-face contact, though. Get vision statements of your competitors, product portfolios, etc.

The outcomes of this learning stage shall make your insight tangible and communicable. You may end up with deliverables like user journeys, strengths-weaknesses profiles, qualitative summary of who you are as a company and who you aspire to be.

Creation Step 2: Elaborate

Now it is time for team work. I recommend bringing together mixed teams for the next two steps. Make use of multiple perspectives in a team to find your focus for the next five to ten years. Use the different perspectives as your secret weapon. A mixed team will be able to craft a strategy that can align more easily with a wider audience in your organisation. Only be aware that you do not want to end up with the smallest common denominator as your vision statement.

Review the insights that you have gathered and ask yourself some real important question about your organisation and it’s situation. What is ultimate impact that you want to make on your community, industry, or probably world? In what ways will you interact with customers and clients? What will the culture of your organisation look like, and how will that play out in members’ lives? In essence: what is your story?

Creation Step 3: Create

Create several versions of the statement and gather feedback from the rest of the group. Create and refine. Create and refine.

Creation Step 4: Evaluate and Refine

Much depends on your vision. If you choose the right one, you can benefit greatly from it. Hence, not surprisingly, it is quite common to evaluate vision statements (Kirkpatrick, 2017). Here is my proposal. It follows the idea that an evaluation should be done as closely to a real setting as possible. Ask for 2–3 challenging decisions your interviewees faced recently. How did they decide? The show them vision statements and ask “given this statement, would you still decide in the same way”? The interesting part will be the reasons of your interviewees. Does the vision statement have an impact on decisions, yes or no? Use the input from these interviews to select the best vision statement and revise it.

Creation Step 5: Share it

You need ways to communicate the vision statement. Identify opportunities to do just that and devise a plan on how to use these them in concert. Also, keep in mind that the vision statement is only one of many messages your organisation sends out. Your vision statement may be accompanied by a longer version. Actually, what most blogs (and me) refer to as the vision statement is only the vision summary. It does help to have that longer version of your vision with further details and clarification. Still you need your summary statement as a trigger to briefly remind people on many, many occasions.

Once you go on stage with your statement be aware that you are making a serious commitment to your addressees. Practice what you preach. “Creating statements of vision […] will backfire if you fail to act in accordance with those statements. This sounds like common sense but unfortunately companies often fail to apply that common sense” (Kirkpatrick, 2016). If the vision implies values you must adhere to them. If the vision sets a goal, you must be the first to pursue it. If you fail doing that, you will lose credibility and so will the vision. That is why I always recommend that leaders “get in the ring” themselves. Discussing the vision with other organisation members is very important. You get the chance to repeat your message what you can hardly do enough. And together you can carve out what each must understand about the vision statement and how it is relevant to their tasks.

Kirkpatricks (2016, p. 289) summarises the importance of sharing the vision in these 4 key takeaways:

  • Overcommunicate the vision statement. Members of our organisation need several chances, to perceive it, digest it, analyse it, talk about it, and finally understand it.
  • Show employees how the vision relates to their team or division and individual jobs.
  • Call on the executive team and influential opinion leaders in the organization to help you communicate the vision statement.
  • Ensure that you and other leaders role model the vision.

The crucial factors to be successful at this stage are creating an emotional connection with the membership and to have sincere commitment from the stakeholders.

The vision will show tendencies of developing a little bit of a life of its own. Counteract, but grant it a little breathing space. Not every movement is a threat. If you do everything right, your organisation will use the vision as a mirror to reflect what it learns. That will not only affect how members perceive new information, it will feedback on how they perceive the vision as well. If you encounter tendencies do not hastily firefight, but investigate and find the cause. You might learn something important about your mission. You will always learn.

Sources & Further Readings

Many sources helped shape my understanding that I laid out in this white paper and I cannot cite them all. If you have constructive comments, I will gladly discuss it with you. Also, I recommend to continue with these sources because they discuss examples and make what I wrote here more tangible:

Changefactory (n/a). “The components of a good vision statement” https://www.changefactory.com.au/our-thinking/articles/the-components-of-a-good-vision-statement/ [accessed at 2019–07–07]

Wright, T. (2019) “How to Write a Good Vision Statement”. https://www.executestrategy.net/blog/write-good-vision-statement [accessed at 2019–07–07]

Further sources I used here besides my own experience and inspiration (recommendations highlighted with *):

Babajee-Pycroft, A. (2019). “Why your software needs a clear product vision”. [accessed at 2019–07–14] https://www.naturalinteraction.com/post/why-software-needs-clear-product-vision

Beckert, J. (2019) “Die Träume der Influencer”; OrganisationsEntwicklung, 2019 (4), p. 12–15 [article in German, also available here, accessed at 2019–12–26]

Comparably (n/a) “BMW Group Mission, Vision & Values”. [accessed at 2019–07–08] https://www.comparably.com/companies/bmw/mission

Doran, G. T. (1981). “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives”. Management Review. 70 (11): 35–36.

Kantabutra, S. & Avery, G. C. (2010). The power of vision: Statements that resonate”. Journal of Business Strategy, 31 (1), p. 37–45. DOI: 10.1108/02756661011012769

Kirkpatrick, S. A. (2017). “Toward a Grounded Theory: A Qualitative Study of Vision Statement Development”. Journal of Management Policy and Practice, 18 (1), p. 87–101

*Kirkpatrick, S. A. (2016). “Build a Better Vision Statement: Extending Research with Practical Advice”. Rowman & Littlefield

Lucas, J. (1998). “Anatomy of a vision statement”. Management Review, 87 (2), p 22–27.

McGreal, D. & Jocham, R. (2018). “Vision”. Chapter 2 in “The Professional Product Owner”. Addison-Wesley

*Schooley, S. (2019). “What Is a Vision Statement?” Business News Daily [accessed at 2019–07–07] https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/3882-vision-statement.html

Spool, J. (2014). “The Experience Vision: A Self-Fulfilling UX Strategy”. [accessed at 2019–07–08] https://link.medium.com/Lr56tv8baY

WellConnected (2017) “5 Components to Creating a Great Vision Statement”. Medium.com [accessed at 2019–07–07] https://link.medium.com/MAkYHZOM2X

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