Leadership

Stop with the "vision" stuff

Ever notice that some organizations spend a lot of time creating strategic plans that don't really end up making them more successful? John M McKee makes the case that successful leaders realize there's a big difference between strategy and execution.

"John, I realize you speak to many people and organizations all the time.  However I think I should give you some guidance before your presentation at our company:

Our managers and leaders need some real-world advice that they can use to get things moving again.  The last speaker who came to talk about leadership told them that if they had 'vision statements' for their departments and teams, then things would be more successful.  Consequently, a lot of time and energy went into creating departmental vision statements.  But in the end, her advice didn't work.  Things didn't improve much - if at all. I think it was a real turnoff for many of our staff.

Please - just give us some tips and tactics that will really work."

The speaker was the head of HR for a medium-sized company involved in digital processing.  I got the message...

When I did my presentation, I focused entirely about how to engage team members while getting them all going in the same direction. I provided real examples of things that actually happen all the time in most organizations, then we discussed solutions.  Lots of notes were taken by those in the audience (always a good sign) and at the end I got a nice round of applause.  A good number of attendees made a point to say to me that it was good to hear from someone who'd actually run organizations himself.

On the flight home I noodled about solutions needed today compared to other periods:  Why, in these challenging times, do some of the most popular concepts of leadership (such as the above-cited vision statement) fail to help leaders or organizations move forward?

Here's why:

1. Many of them were never expected to. The concepts, models, philosophies, were created for strategic value.  Not tactical.  Strategy is long-term in focus; tactics get us through tough situations we're facing now. 2. Strategic planning was invented by the military, probably first used in ancient Greece as a methodical thinking approach for army leaders who needed to have a longer term perspective in addition to winning the next battle.  But it was never intended to determine how to take the next bridge or town. 3. By definition, vision statements are intended to define the way an organization will look in the future. It is long term in perspective. Mission statements are more about describing what an organization does to achieve the vision.  The can be helpful for those who need some clear direction on a big picture basis. 4. Most people get confused by terms and words like these, preferring to be given fairly clear direction. But I'm not saying you need to spell out each detailed step a team member should take to get his/her tasks accomplished - that mistake could result in a loss of your best talent who resent such detail!

In my experience, across all the continents that I've worked, most people prefer to achieve success, create a good product, and help a customer to get what they need.  What I hear from teams all the time is, "They just need to tell me what they want done."

I call that describing an outcome. Outcomes are what organizations (should) produce. The best leaders know how to describe outcomes in words that we all understand and can remember.

Here's to your future!

John

Leadership Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

27 comments
ronjohnson4056
ronjohnson4056

This is so true. Too many businesses have this "vision" that really doesn't have anything to do with what they are actually doing. It may be what they would like to do one day, but they are currently incapable of completing. I wish they would focus more on goals that would actually get them to that point instead of just wishing.


Ron Johnson |  http://www.drtripp.com/ 

Faith Fuqua-Purvis
Faith Fuqua-Purvis

For me, it's both Strategy and Execution. You need to know where you are going, what you want to accomplish, how you plan on getting there (yes, having that plan AND adapting it, and then knowing how to measure yourself against that plan. To often Mission, Vision, and Strategy statements are that, statements. They are created and then set aside. Any tool or approach can be good or bad, it's all about how it is executed. MBO is not a bad concept, it's a very valid one. The problem (as can be observed by the story shared by binab&madbadbearbox) is that the Objectives are not always consistent...and Individual Objectives are not necessarily the same as Business Objectives. The story shared pointed out that the Sales individual had their own Objectives they were driving towareds. For me, I net it down to this: Vision - Where are you going Mission - What you want to accomplish/Who you want to be Strategy - The big picture of how you plan to get there Tactics - The day to day execution In setting up my company, I also spent time creating Guiding Principles. These are concepts of regarding how I and my business operate. I make decisions on a regular basis based on alignment to principles, strategy, and vision. They are also all living, breathing concepts, not something written once and ignored.

tjalbrecht
tjalbrecht

"When I did my presentation, I focused entirely about how to engage team members while getting them all going in the same direction. I provided real examples of things that actually happen all the time in most organizations, then we discussed solutions." So, you showed them how to execute based on their vision? That contradicts "stop with the vision stuff". You implemented vision. Interesting write up. I think you sparked some opinions from people that are "on the bus because it's a paycheck", and there is well-expected input from the "bus drivers". Traction: GWC

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

I've been in several different vision-building workshops at various companies. Each of the workshops where the employees came up with a vision statement actually improved working conditions and product delivery. But note that it wasn't the vision statement we ended with that effected the change; it was the work the current employees did together while coming up with the vision that created the change. It is like generals having a written down Battle Plan. The actual plan is next to useless and should be discarded as soon as you meet the enemy, but the work involved in having all the current folks come up with THE PLAN is absolutely vital for any attempt at success. Creating a vision statement together in the organization brings people together. Having a vision statement for new employees to read is about as useful as having Moby Dick for them to read.

binab
binab

We are sorry we had not loaded the complete picture, which would be impossible in any case. During making the MV's, think what happens if we have an upper sales manager wanting to show they and their department are the real bosses of the company. If our marketing manager was dysfunctional, we think it would have been war. If our company was not distribution but also research and manufacturing... The dislocation we found was the point of view of our employee. Like the rest of us 'other' departments, we felt about to be sidelined by this horrible manager. We had to think how we contributed to the company. Politics, when perceived power is acquired, do expect request for higher benefits to follow. We made a side remark, that lets see if we leave, would you save any expense. As another hallmark of this manager, was the amateur perception of cost-cutting by outsourcing. He really wanted to be an All-Sales show. Anyway, we are happy to say such manager met his match when our company was bought. He left in less than 6 months. To make nuts of the shell...Any MV-making should be devoid of politicking.

rboggio1
rboggio1

I find it hard to believe vision and mission statements are viewed so harshly. Vision and mission statements are great tools and wonderful guides if theyre used correctly. The vision statement typically is defined as who we want to become. The mission statement generally defines how were going to achieve the vision. The issue always comes down to commitment. Its interesting when the C suite builds a vision statement; so many times they come up with a grandiose vision, a utopian ideal. No mission statement no matter how well-crafted brings that utopian ideal into perspective. Not to be outdone Ive seen departments build vision statements the same way. When any normal mortal human being looks at it they fall back in angst asking themselves, "are we supposed to do that"? Typically anyone in their right mind would not engage in such a utopian quest. On the other hand if you can sit down and define why you're in business to begin with, you have a good starting point. Obviously everyone is in business to make money, thats why we start a business. Once you pass the point of startup, why you stay in business begins to look different. Maybe its to deliver a quality product, or service. For some it might be to effect the community or city they're in. For others it may be quite different, it may be about innovation or driving a technology to the next level. Whatever the reason, it needs to be agreed on, defined and communicated. Maybe the vision looks like this "to be an innovative change agent in our market space" whatever that market space may be. That vision, that statement defines why your business is here to everyone in the company. It tells every employee what they can contribute to. It doesnt change in hard times it doesnt change in good times. At the end of the day when the smoke clears you can ask this simple question, "did we innovate and drive change in our market space"? Very simply, it reveals if the resources you are expending are achieving the results of why youre in business. Its not hard nor is a complicated. Its simply putting a marker in the ground and declaring this is our rally point. The mission, the mission changes as fast as the market changes. Were always adapting too environmental variables such as supply and demand, economic conditions, social climates as well as political environments. The mission always changes and adapts to achieve the vision. As I like to say the mission changes as frequently as your underwear. What always presents itself as the challenger to the vision and mission is the human condition. Words like courage vision leadership integrity and character all come to mind. What it boils down to, from the CEO to the data entry clerk are you managing your business according to your agreement, the vision. The vision and a mission statement our wonderful tools and great guides if your truly engaged with the agreement. Are we truly managing our business to achieve that end? What you typically find, everyone likes the sound of vision and mission. It makes us look and sound good aka smart. Sadly what you discover is very few people have the fortitude to actually drive the vision. They just dont have the stomach for it. Ironically the vision and mission actually worked, contrary to their intended purpose but they worked. They reveal the type of leadership currently present in any organization. Reflecting on how this started with the author asking the question, why did'nt it work and further into the comments they talk about the disjointed part of that vision. The vision isnt disjointed its the leadership thats disjointed, when you can't explain to somebody why entering a flat text file is moving the company toward achieve sales, management lacks whole picture thinking. Fundamentally this boils down to a lack of leadership. Why are we so afraid to call the kettle black in situations like this? Blame it on the tool, its an inanimate object, you dont have to confront that. Lack of leadership on the other hand will require confrontation, thats the real work. When you can state the question like this "we have a clear vision of where were going, why cant we get there"? Now you're getting to the real source of the problem, the human condition.

l_e_cox
l_e_cox

I have been told that business management and leadership development theory, as taught in universities, is missing the mark. I don't have much experience with those systems, but judging from the comments above, there does seem to be a lack of workability at the theory level. I worked most of my life in an organization that had developed its own integrated approach to leadership and management. Its founder saw that "managing by the textbook" was not getting good results, so set out to write a better textbook. I think that he succeeded. And the essence of his work was an integrated, scalable approach. He realized, from his own experience, that one person, to be really successful, needs a full range of skills from goal-making at the top to getting the product out the door and keeping the place clean. And that even as the group expands, each group member must, to some extent, understand and embody the whole group picture, from highest strategic goals down to the minutest tactical actions. So he set about to teach all group members the basics of an entire "administrative scale" with goal-making at the top, all the way down to counting widgets at (or near) the bottom. This allows each group member to better comprehend what is happening, both physically and conceptually, on the levels above him and below him. And it enables each group member to utilize the entire scale in his own role or job. Just as upper management can have goals, projects, and daily targets, so can the HR manager, the Receptionist, or the janitor.

r_rosen
r_rosen

There's an old saying, there's a slim line between vision and hallucination. Most vision statements are the latter. If there is not a clear method of execution, the rest is a waste of time and effort.

a.pyne
a.pyne

I am not so keen to throw the Vision/Strategy baby out with the bath water. Alas all too often I have found that leaders in organisations do not have the knowledge or skills to bring about the Vision/Strategy. Most often this involves change, often at a considerable scale and most leaders have made their successful careers from business as usual. Change requires a different mindset and ways of working. Even the professional development of leaders often ignores this. For example, too many MBAs have lots of stuff about Vision and Strategy development but precious little about planning for and managing change, and how to prepare an organisation for change. Although the situation is improving here in the UK. In short, being clear about where you want to go is good, but so is knowing how to get there. Adrian

Professor8
Professor8

Having a common mission and encouraging creative vision is good... but the clueless B-school bozos always turn them into irrelevancies or verbiage lacking meaning. Management By Objectives (MBO) seemed reasonable at first, before the snake-oil salesmen got ahold of them, and the incompetents created objectives that were irrelevant to the success of the enterprise (so people worked worked worked to fulfill the stated and rewarded objectives and the bottom line went down down, then the workers were dumped dumped dumped while the brain-dead execs were promoted promoted and heaped with compensation).

jhorton
jhorton

I have thought for a very long time that 'mission' and 'vision' statements are horribly misguided. I am not saying that they are unnecessary - quite the contrary - but they rarely support the actual goals of a company or department. Rather, they are usually filled with meaningless buzzword garbage and fail to clearly state a common and achievable goal. How many of your employees 'syngerize' or 'focus on gainsharing'? Simply put, a real vision or mission statement should be in plain language, inwardly focused, and something that the management and staff can actually believe in. Just my opinion. I could be wrong

MikeGall
MikeGall

A company has to have a mission/vision or it might be building a lot of product just not the right product. That said often vision mission statements should be kept in house. It drives me nuts when a company tries to force their mission statement into every customer contact even when it is horribly vague, and self centered. eg. Hi Mike, We should chat some time. Bob Intellisoft makes the best software by leveraging its superior development know how to maximize shareholder value. This has allowed us to sell to all major OEMs in the PC space. Boppity blob, we hug our employees every day and that is why we're so happy. Really as a customer do I want to hear about your group showers? Do I really want to hear that you are trying to "maximize shareholder value" (ie get as much of my money as possible) or that you have great connections to all market leaders (who are my competitors, and oh since you are trying to get my business that must mean that I'm not a market leader right)? Keep the Kool-aid for your cult members please.

dmigliori
dmigliori

Interesting debate. In my experience if you look only at the results without having a vision, you are probably going straight into the wall. Happy today and dead tomorrow. What happens is that building a clear vision is an hard exercise, that put top-management in front of their responsibilities. It is not a matter of case if a top performer executive is often called as "visionary". But all the others top managers in front of the question "Where are we going?" "How will our business look like in five years" etc... simply try to skip the question. Because it is not easy to answer. It is probably the hardest task for an executive, demanding a lot of work, study, brainstorming. So nothing easier than hide behind a lot of buzzwords and empty formulas which probably fill most of the vision statement today. And then move this emptiness down to mission, strategy, etc... I still think that Mission / Strategic vision of things is necessary. I'd change the title in "Exec: stop the bullshit vision stuff and start to be clear easy and concise on the vision".

mdwalls
mdwalls

I agree with the body of your article but the title is misleading. As Careercoach unintentionally points out, if you don't know where you want to go anything you do can be labeled "progress". For that matter, even at the tactical level a visioning exercise can be helpful. binab&madbadbearbox points out a perfect example of when a subordinate business unit is busy doing work but can't tell you how what they do contributes to the organization. Years ago I found some guidance that helps sort out useful mission or vision statements from feel-good BS. Clive Finkelstein's "Information Engineering: Strategic Systems Development" includes a set of tests for assessing the quality of such pronouncements. Paraphrasing from memory, you use the statement to build a conceptual data model then ask it two questions: (1) Is it coherent and reasonably complete? and (2) Do you recognize yourself in this description? I've extended this somewhat in practice by asking (3) Are you doing anything about it? For example, the vision talks about high customer satisfaction. Does the company measure and track satisfaction? Does it emphasize customer information systems and other enabling practices aimed at achieving satisfaction? etc. etc.

david
david

I've been doing strategic planning for about 30 years now and have never had much use for mission statements. In my model, a company is really about its mission: the problem it solves, the market for whom it solves it, any geographic parameters for that market, and the social benefit it delivers. Everything flows from that, including what the company should/could "look like". A well crafted mission is an acid test for everything that follows - goals, objectives, strategies, tactics and specific implementations; if it supports the mission, it's worth considering, and if it doesn't, I encourage clients not to waste any time on it. Too often, I've seen vision become divorced from anything "below" it (mission, goals, etc.). If you want to do something like that, define your mission, goals and objectives first, and then come up with a statement of corporate ethics or ideals that supports the company in fulfilling its primary purpose - solving problems.

binab
binab

We encountered this same problem also. Spent time making a top-level vision & mission. The words seemed like a play 'providing' and 'giving' etc. But finally after making them, we started to go down to the department levels. There, we saw some kind of dislocation from what we were doing and from the MV we made at the top. For instance, 'how does processing sales data of text files' relate to 'reaching gross sales of billions' and 'providing customer satisfaction' ?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I think it's: 1. Most of them were never expected to! - They were sold to a bunch of people with a heavy case of impostor's syndrome, who wanted something to help them seem to be doing something they'd hoodwinked themselves into believing they really ought to be doing, but had no idea how to really do (Lee-dur-ship). So, a snake oil salesman came in, realized what was really being desired, and sold just that. A gesture of leadership, as loud as it is empty.

CareerCoach
CareerCoach

Today, more than ever perhaps, we need to accomplish. Strategy is important / results keep us moving forward.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"It tells every employee what they can contribute to." I submit that most vision and mission statements DON'T tell most employees what they can do; that they are written in 'business speak' that few employees can translate into actions.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

It's not that we think having a vision and mission is crap, or even that the vision and mission are crap. It's management continually ignoring it, for a short term gain.... All too often, management producing vision and mission, means job done. Operate like that and how are we to equate having one with sucess?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

These statements, as they are used, are letters of credit from management. Where there is no trust in management, they amount to glorified junk bonds. And the fact that these junk bonds are expected by management to automagically achieve some kind of profound change in how people work, it begins to take on tragi-comical aspects. I do agree that management should own the vision and mission, but they should KISS in any case, and they should consider keeping it to themselves until they know they have their shilt together management-wise. Otherwise it will appear much the same as a rider, sitting backwards in the saddle, with his helmet over his eyes, reciting a sonnet to the horse's ass about how the horse will now win the race with grace and fury. The problem is, that in these cases, where management doesn't and can't lead, they expect the workforce to whip themselves into a religious fervor about these glorified banalities, so that they will lead themselves, and let management off easy. Nice plan, but it's not going to work. Taking your example; "did we innovate and drive change in our market space?"... what if, for most of the employees, the answer to that, day after day, will be "Nope". Then it is not a relevant statement to fulfill, and it should be thrown out the window. Otherwise it will, conversely, make the employees feel that their efforts are irrelevant, day after day... And it's not like it can harm anyone if it falls on them, since it's really hardly even there.

jhorton
jhorton

What you have been told is on the mark: 'Leadership' studies are pretty much garbage. I was forced to take some of these classes (if such a word can be applied in the loosest sense) to complete my Bachelor's and have several of the leadership students in my graduate level courses. Based on empirical evidence, the courses are meaningless theoretical junk and the degrees are highly suspect. Being able to hang jargon on interpersonal dynamics is hardly a science (more akin to voodoo, really) and apparently inapplicable in the working world. Too bad, really, as it could be useful.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Vision stuff should be about the final 5%, about making a good company great. Most companies aren't good enough to begin with. The first step should involve knowing what and where the company is right now. Second step is finding out what the company's business really is, and which parts of the company aren't going there. Fix those, and get it to work - after this step you have a good company. Only then is it time to worry about the last 5%. If you have crummy managers (one of many signs of a sub-par company), forget about visions, they're going to be a waste of time, because you can't take a crummy old tractor into orbit.

constt
constt

Really well said: A well crafted mission is an acid test for everything that follows - goals, objectives, strategies, tactics and specific implementations; if it supports the mission, it's worth considering, and if it doesn't, I encourage clients not to waste any time on it.

Faith Fuqua-Purvis
Faith Fuqua-Purvis

It's both what and how. Yes, we don't want to get "hung up" in the strategy portion but if you don't have a strategy, an idea, an objective you can be putting alot of energy into things that take you the wrong direction.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

But the integrated approach is a bit on the sci-fi side, ifn you know what I mean... considering that it was conceived by L Ron Hubbard.

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