walking path

Why you should work on your vision

It is not unusual for the people who work in an organization to be blind to or ignorant of its vision, assuming it has articulated one. Even worse is for it to be derided by those being counted on to achieve it.

I once participated in a vision-setting session during which a colleague scoffed at the idea that our little office could do much to influence the future we had just agreed collectively we wanted to see. The vision was too grandiose, the argument went, and we were too small an army to achieve it. We moved on, having missed an opportunity for our organization to be visionary instead of simply strategic, to think into the future instead of just about current needs and capabilities.

The point of establishing a clear vision may be the most misunderstood element of organization-building. Too often it is viewed as a “woo woo” exercise, more abstract than useful, which invites skepticism of the value of establishing one.

It is a mistake, however, to overlook its importance. A clear vision is the rallying cry, the unifying touchstone, and the catalyst for teamwork. It governs decision-making over time, keeps the organization grounded in its purpose and focused on its future. It is the bedrock on which successful organizations endure through ups, downs, and turn-arounds.

Every organization needs a vision. They are easier to sort out for some than others.

Developing a useful vision can be more challenging for government entities than private-sector and non-profit organizations, which generally emerge from an innovative idea, market opportunity, or social need that helps define their purpose. Too often, though, they miss out on a critical building block when they forego setting aside time to develop a long-term vision.

Governments at all levels usually work without a formal vision, substituting the immediacy of existing policy and laws for a broad consensus around a future their constituents want them to achieve. It is easy to underestimate how hard that can be when everyone rightly deserves a say, not just subsets of targeted customers or eligible clients.

Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done.

In a Harvard Business Review article1, Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras describe a two-part framework for developing an organizational vision that results in a useful, organizing principle that guides an entity into the future. The two principal parts are core ideology and envisioned future.

Core ideology is the relationship between an organization’s core values and its core purpose; it’s the glue that holds everything together, according to the authors.

“Core values are an organization’s essential and enduring tenets—the values it would hold even if they became a competitive disadvantage; core purpose is the organization’s fundamental reason for being,” the article says. [emphasis added]

The second part of the framework is envisioned future, which the authors say requires a “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal,” which the organization should have a 50-70 percent chance of achieving. Most important, the goal must be described in vivid detail so that it evolves from words on the page to something everyone can see. Think NASA’s moon mission, or Henry Ford’s vision to democratize the automobile. The article quotes Ford saying, “When I am through, everybody will be able to afford one, and everyone will have one. The horse will have disappeared from our highways, the automobile will be taken for granted…[and we will] give a large number of men employment at good wages.”

Put simply, core ideology, as defined by the authors, is what the organization stands for and why it exists. Envisioned future, they write, is what the organization aspires to become, to achieve, to create—something that will require significant change and progress over 10 to 30 years or more to achieve. It is the north star that imbues the organization with unswerving direction and the insight to know what should never change and where the organization should be open to change to achieve it.

The authors caution against confusing purpose, which should last at least 100 years, with specific goals or business strategies, which should change often in that timeframe. For example, the purpose of government is not to fulfill its charter, just as the purpose of a business is not its product line or customer base. The purpose is the larger social good your government, business, or non-profit organization exists to deliver.

If you’d like help to reap the benefits of a clear vision for your organization by exploring what it stands for, why it exists, and what its “big, hairy, audacious goal” could be, let’s talk.

1. Collins, Jim and Jerry I. Porras. Building Your Company’s Vision. Harvard Business Review. September-October 1996.

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Mary Hull Callabero

Mary Hull Callabero is the Founder + CEO of ManageWise, a consulting firm that equips executives and managers of public-serving organizations to overcome the perils and pitfalls that hinder their progress toward achieving their goals.

Learn more about Mary and ManageWise ›

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