Let me cut straight to the bottom line. The reason that vision statements fail to inspire and rally the troops is very simple: Vision is NOT a statement!
Which immediately raises a question. Why the heck do we spend so much time and energy wrangling words to create vision statements? You know how it goes. Make a big effort to get the words "right," role it out with great fanfare, hang the new statement on a wall, give everyone newly branded swag, etc. etc.
Even so, most of the time, most of your people won't remember the new vision statement. It doesn't produce the impact you hoped for. A common reaction is one big collective yawn, except from the new interns. who are still wet behind the ears.
Am I saying that vision is unimportant? Not at all. Vision is extraordinarily important. True vision rallies people to shared goals and dreams. It brings alignment to disparate parts of a team or organization. It gives definition to real success. Vision draws out the best contribution of your people. It creates a reason for sacrifice.
If I could, I would make you stand up and read the following declarations out loud.
Vision is not a statement.
Vision is not a slogan.
It is not a motto.
Ultimately, it is not even a matter of words at all.
Vision is a picture! It is a thing we see. A thing we imagine so clearly we can almost reach out and touch it and taste it.
I’ve heard the story of a conversation between a reporter and Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian, at the grand opening of Disney World in October 1971. The reporter said, “It’s a shame that Walt couldn't be here to see this moment.” To which Lillian replied, “I don't think you understand. If Walt hadn’t seen it, WE wouldn’t be here.”
Vision is the picture of the new reality you see in the future. It is the result of all your labor and good intentions in 3-D definition. The reason for putting it into words is to capture and communicate the picture of the future you actually see. Words exist to describe that reality.
We've all heard great examples of words painting a picture of an irresistible future. JFK: "Before this decade is out we will land a man on the moon and return him safely back to earth." MLK: "I have a dream..." King delivered one of the most famous speeches of all time, precisely because his words described the specifics of the different future he envisioned. He didn't stand on those steps and declare, "I have a concept."
Vision is so important, I am going to write a series of posts on vision, but for this first installment let's stay focused on this one core concept. How clear is your picture of the future you long for?
If you have a vision statement that keeps gathering dust, no matter how hard you try to rally people around it, the odds are, you have a statement filled with words no one could disagree with. But, those words fail to describe a compelling and clear picture of the future. If so it's time to pull back and approach it differently. I'd suggest starting personally, not with a complex corporate process.
If, by chance, you are working on a vision statement right now, stop the presses. Step back from a focus on words and re-engage your imagination. The hard truth is that if you focus on selecting, tweaking, and massaging "inspiring words," you wont achieve anything more than group fatigue and the discouragement that follows good intentions that go nowhere.
If you focus on crafting the words of a vision statement, that very process will prevent you from developing actual vision.
Let me offer a first step toward a better way forward: Focus Your Imagination.
Ask yourself three questions and let your imagination run without restraint as you think about how you'd answer them.
What need do I/we long to meet? ...problem do I/we want to solve? (No platitudes or "right answers" allowed. Get concrete about it.)
Why does meeting that need mean so much to me/us? (Why do you personally care?)
How would life be different for people, your neighborhood, your community, if that need was met or that problem was solved? (Think about the specific results that would be possible and imagine that new reality.)
Vision paints a picture of results, not the process or programs it will take to achieve them. So, for now suspend the natural questions about "what it would take to make this happen." Worrying about how you will achieve it, will curtail your ability to imagine the fullness of what you long for. Put those questions into suspended animation. Strategic planning is the process that will help you figure out how to get from here to there, but the first step is to get clear about where "there" is.
Look. Every leader I know wants the contribution of their life and the organization or business they lead to help make the world a better place somehow. To bring healing and hope on some level to people and places plagued by brokenness. To provide a way people can improve their lives. The kernel of that longing is the seedbed of profound vision. That kernel lives in you.
Take some time to pull back and get clear about the essence of what you long to see happen. Then nurture the clarity of the picture that starts to emerge of the new day created when that need is met. Do so and you are on your way to the compelling vision that has been eluding you.