It’s time to say goodbye to bland and meaningless company vision statements

Has anyone ever told you your company vision statement probably doesn’t mean anything? If they haven’t – we can certainly tell you now.

Your company vision statement probably doesn’t mean anything.

“It is our job to continually foster world-class infrastructures as well as to quickly create principle-centered sources to meet our customer’s needs”

“Our challenge is to assertively network economically sound methods of empowerment so that we may continually negotiate performance based infrastructures”

“Our vision is to be world-class, best-in-class….”

Sound familiar? What does ‘world-class’ even mean? How do you know when you achieve it? Who will judge whether you are world-class or not?

People can often recite the vision, yes, but can they really explain what it means and how it’s measured? Often, it’s left open to interpretation, meaning different things to different people. It’s never top of mind. And so progress toward achieving the vision is slow (sometimes non-existent) and it’s hard to measure such bland, lofty statements.

So how can you create a sticky vision? Something with a collective, meaningful, consistent definition, that influences day-to-day work, decisions and relationships.

We’ve gone through the process of creating an organisational vision several times, across different industries. We’ve learnt many lessons along the way. And we’ve also discovered five things that you can do to create a vision that sticks…

1. Get out of the boardroom
Boardrooms are generally very nice places. The table is big. The coffee is hot. Usually there’s a good view. Boardrooms lend themselves well to deep discussion and pondering. But unless everyone in your company can fit in the boardroom you need to get out of it.

Company visions should drive mindsets, actions and behaviours across the entire organisation. That’s why everyone in the business should participate in the process. By asking for their input and involvement you can achieve faster adoption because the resulting vision reflects everyone’s ideas, not just a select group.

Recently we helped run a vision and strategy road show across Asia Pacific with an oil & gas company. During 90-minute open discussions with employees and the CEO, employee’s input on vision and strategic focus were explored and captured. We engaged over 200 people in six countries. Then we used these inputs to shape the organisational vision and strategy. For employees, the sessions not only helped to give them a greater understanding of the business context and direction but also gave them direct contact with the CEO as an added bonus.

2. Include what you’re not and acknowledge the past
When Howard Schultz stepped back into a CEO role at Starbucks in 2008, he recalls, “First there had to be a time when we stood up in front of the entire company as leaders and made almost a confession —that the leadership had failed the 180,000 Starbucks people and their families… We had to admit to ourselves and to the people of this company that we owned the mistakes that were made. Once we did, it was a powerful turning point.”

A company vision is forward-looking. It paints a picture of the future and provides direction. However, it doesn’t entirely wipe out the past. Creating a vision is not just about the glitz of the future and all that you hope to become. It should also be about holding up a mirror to acknowledge the blemishes. We need to take a moment to account for what we don’t want anymore to better articulate the mindsets and behaviours we do want going forward.

We are currently working with the IT department of a major airline to help clarify their vision and strategy. The first step in the process involved running workshops with the employees. Through the open discussions, we were able to identify the scars of the past and hear the employees’ deepest concerns and pain points. We were told that workshops felt like therapy sessions; employees left feeling like they had finally been heard. We left knowing which hangover from the past we had to acknowledge and address.

3. If you can’t measure it, it didn’t happen
We very rarely see company visions that can be measured. As strange as it sounds. And we very rarely see vision statements with KPIs linked to the senior management team. We’ve spent the last year comparing company vision statements with performance agreements. More often than not, we see no linkage at all to what senior managers are measured on, and the company vision statement. It’s time to include clear measures of exactly what you mean. And then publish it. Make it transparent so the whole organisation can see how the management team is linked to the company vision.

Spot the difference…

Our vision is to be the world’s best airline

Our vision is to be the world’s best airline in these three areas: passenger safety, on-time performance and customer experience. As a leadership team we are measured on improving from xx to xx and our KPIs are published here.

We are about to launch a vision and strategy for one of our clients. When we’d finished the strategy, we linked every single one of the CEOs KPIs to the strategy and priorities. Then we published it for the whole organisation to see.

4. Don’t email it. Create an experience.
There’s something about experiencing a tropical island or exploring a new city that can’t be captured through words or pictures (that’s probably why looking at other people’s holiday photos is more ‘Yawn’ than it is ‘Yay’).

People remember what they experience. And unfortunately great sentences don’t count as experiences. And neither does PowerPoint. And the worst thing you can do is launch a new vision through email. The greatest impact is achieved by designing an experience that brings the vision to life. This makes the vision real, rather than words on a page.

We recently created a three-day offsite with a luxury retailer where employees experienced the company vision in a number of different days. Day one was all about connection – with the brand, with each other, with their customers. One of the sessions involved the employees going out into different parts of the city to capture photos which they felt expressed the brand and all that the company stands for.

The experience gave them the time to interact with the vision, understand what it means to them personally and how it can influence their actions and behaviours. And by creating a safe environment throughout the experience we were able to get honest feedback from participants, giving us the opportunity to address concerns, confusion and unavoidably – cynicism.

5. Use the power of storytelling
Vision and strategy documents are boring. There is a real opportunity to use the power of storytelling to rally people behind a vision and strategy. It’s perplexing that we don’t do it enough – choosing instead to hide behind cryptic diagrams with words like ‘integrity’ and ‘partnership’ in circles connected with arrows and dotted lines.

Storytelling works because it’s deep-rooted in human behaviour – across cultures and generations. It’s how we communicate on a daily basis, whether it’s about a funny incident on Facebook, or an inspiring tale from a stranger on the subway. Stories touch every facet of our lives. We can relate to and connect with them.

Sadly, the language we use internally is corporate-speak and bland. We’ve lost the human element to the language we use. Every project we work on involves storytelling. We bring people on a journey; we are brutally honest with what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. We get people on side because of this honesty. We inspire leaders to stand up and be vulnerable. It’s not easy. It’s definitely challenging. But at the end of the day, people want authenticity, and it’s only through the power of storytelling that we can connect and relate to people.

Are you embarking on a vision-creating mission? Remember these tips…then go forth and disrupt the conventional approach:

1. Don’t just develop it in the boardroom, get out on the road, get as many people involved as you can.

2. Include what you’re not, as much as what you want to be. Acknowledge the blemishes of the past and tell an honest story about what you’ve got right and what you haven’t.

3. Avoid bland statements and measure, link it to senior managers KPIs.

4. Never, ever rely on email for communicating a new vision and strategy.

5. Tell stories. Be authentic. Be human. Avoid corporate-speak.

We originally posted this blog on LinkedIn.