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Three things that make a great vision (and two that don’t)

 

According to Wayne Aspland, there's nothing like a good vision to bring an organisation, brand, project or team to life. In fact, a great vision can be one of the most powerful strategic tools any leader can possess.

 

Just over 50 years ago – on the 25th May 1961 – John F Kennedy stood in front of US Congress and said this:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

If you want to understand the true power of vision (and its ability to drive change), look no further than this statement. Kennedy went to Congress with no money or detailed plan and proceeded to use his vision to change the course of US history.

This one statement gave rise to perhaps the most audacious human enterprise ever undertaken.

It played an enormous role in creating the sense of excitement and dare-to-dream thinking that earmarked the 60s.

It survived Kennedy’s assassination and the tragic death of three astronauts to be realised when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on 20 July 1969.

And, along the way, this vision inspired a whirlwind of invention: from CAT scanners, computer chips and satellite television to insulation, smoke detectors and freeze-dried food.

 

Why visions matter

One of my favourite quotes comes from Jack Welch. He said:

“Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”

That’s it.

You can take the billions of words that have been written about leadership and chunk them down to this one simple phrase.

It doesn’t matter whether you lead a major organisation, a team, a project or a local club, your role is the same: to create the vision and realise it.

And this gets to an important point about visions.

They’re much more than nice words designed to adorn posters and presentations. They play a critical role in driving strategic momentum.

Visions do this by giving people a singular aspiration that underpins everything they do, everything they say and every decision they make. A powerful vision provides an anchor that keeps everyone on course – and aligned – during times of change.

Times like now.

 

Creating a great vision

So, what makes a powerful vision? The sort that drives an organisation forward and (dare I say) actually comes true. There’s basically three things:

Great visions are simple: They need to be simple enough for anyone to understand, remember and share. And they need to be shared consistently. Everytime there's a slight misrepresentation (such as when a manager gets it wrong while briefing his or her team) there's an element of confusion created that threatens both the vision and its achievement.

Great visions are credible: That means they need to be realistic and measurable. For the last 20 years, the most influential model for corporate vision creation has been Jim Collins’ and Jerry Porras’ ‘BHAG’ or ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’. When you hear Collins and Porras speak of BHAGs they make it clear that a BHAG must be aligned strategically. Unfortunately, many businesses seem to have read the headline but not the detail and created visions that are so big they could never be achieved. As a result, you can’t measure them, you can’t use them to drive strategic momentum and you’ll have a hell of a time getting people to believe them. An outlandishly big vision sounds great but is basically useless.

Great visions are inspiring: On the flip side, you’ll occasionally read a vision that seems little more than a description of the organisation as it is today. Realism doesn’t mean boring and it shouldn’t encourage timidity. A great vision will have the capacity to excite everybody. It will paint a picture of their (not your) future and inspire support, commitment and involvement. To that end, a vision needs to speak of success not only for the organisation but for everyone around it.

 

At the same time, there are two things that a vision isn’t.

Great visions aren’t timeless: To be realistic, measurable and capable of driving strategic momentum, a vision must have a time frame. That, by definition, means visions don’t (and shouldn’t) last forever.

Great visions aren’t alone: Vision plays a powerful role in ‘pulling’ people forward. But real momentum comes when you see vision as part of a single story that tells everyone who you are, where you're going and how you'll get there. Think purpose, values, value proposition, strategy and vision all working together to tell your story. This story needs to be completely aligned and told (at the risk of repeating myself) in simple, credible and inspiring terms.

 

It ain’t just me saying this…

Have you ever run into someone who doubts the importance of a strong vision… or purpose?

Try playing this to them. They'll love the quotations (even if they're not so crazy about the music!)…

 

 

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