Strategic visioning

2009

We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. It's part of the human condition to want to "belong." It is the reason that we form communities, join churches, follow sport teams and volunteer our time for the greater good. It is one of the reasons that we get up in the morning.

Another reason to get up in the morning is to go to work. Besides wanting to earn a living to provide for ourselves and families, most of us choose careers, join companies and dedicate our lives to career development for a similar sense of belonging.

With that said, it is in our best interests as business leaders to create exciting organizations that are substantially different than the others of which we compete in order to attract and retain the best and brightest.

So, how does one marry these two very different, but, seemingly interdependent aspirations? Why not begin by painting a vision? I'm not suggesting that we default to the same tired and uninspired vision statements that appear on Company web sites or printed on banners strung from Company rafters.

You know the ones, like:

"We are dedicated to helping people achieve health and financial security by providing easy access to safe, cost-effective, high-quality health care and protecting their finances against health-related risks…"

Or:

"We are passionate about understanding and responding to customer needs. We provide authoritative information and technology based solutions across key stages of our customers work flow. Our products are demonstrably superior, or distinctive to our competitors."

These kinds of company visions (taken from actual companies) are a dime a dozen. They read like "motherhood and apple pie" – pleasant and easy to digest, but not very enlightening. They don't describe the Company or what it's like to be part of the organization. They don't serve to distinguish a specific enterprise because they can apply to any company within the industry. A Strategic Vision should be much more than motherhood and apple pie fare.

This is why I advise my clients to craft a "Vision Story" – something with depth, something so compelling and vivid that the average working professional wants to be part of it. Here is where to begin.

Constructing a Riveting Vision Story

Above all else, a vision story must be engaging. People must be able to identify with what is being proffered within the story. They need to be able to see themselves working at that Company. The story must be so riveting that a staff member will not be satisfied working at any other firm on the planet. Futuristic in its tone and loose and sinuous in its organization, a vision story is written as if the Company has already completed the work needed to achieve its vision. Typically, 15 – 20 pages in length, the story must be a vast and detailed discussion of what a Company is to become in order to achieve its long-range goals.

How do you begin? It starts by imagining the possibilities. As I work with my clients on Visioning, I start with a very basic question: "What can this Company become?"

Inevitably, the initial answers outline financial goals, like, "We will be at $100 Billion by 2014," or "We will operate at a 40% margin by 2015," and so on.

It's a great start! Let a strong statement of the financial goal frame the vision story. People want to know the size of Company that they will be part of down-the-road. It will serve to inform their commitment and will act as a differentiator among options (i.e., small and growing, mid-size and specialized, large and dominating etc.) It's important to people to identify with the size and goals of the firms for which they work.

But, the financial goal is just the beginning of the story. The rest of the tale must include details about the Company, including such characteristics as:

Management Style
Customer Demographics
Growth Strategies
Service Delivery
Brand Value
Operating Model
Flexible Workforce
Communication Infrastructure
Diversity & Inclusion
Leadership Models
Product/Service Sets
Product Distribution
New Business Partnerships
Organizational Structure
Process Transformation
Performance Metrics
Project Portfolios
Governance Frameworks

This is not to say that the vision story specifies what each of these characteristics is for the Company. Each of the subjects on the list must be further refined and developed over the course of time that transpires between where an organization is today and where it ventures to be in the future.

The vision story simply articulates the characteristics of the firm when it has achieved its vision. To state it another way, the vision story contains a discussion about how each of the elements outlined above have been instituted and now encompass the very fabric of the enterprise.

For example, the following passage from an actual vision story was used to describe the "Flexible Workforce" topic:

"By fostering an open and honest relationship with staff, a responsive, flexible workforce is in place. Effective cross-training and education programs have been put in place, as well. This allows the Company to respond rapidly to workflow peaks and valleys.

Highly complex processes are now performed directly by front-line associates with a "If I can do it, I will!" mentality broadly sweeping across the Company.

Training efforts have broadened their focus from job-specific development to one where overall process knowledge, interpersonal skills, leadership development, methodology practices, management skills, and succession planning are provided"

Notice there is a lot of detail describing the resultant work setting that has been instituted. There is little information about how the workforce flexibility was achieved, anything about specific training plans or how demand and capacity are managed in order to institute the Flexible Workforce that is, in fact, an important component of the Company's vision for the future. Instead, the passage purely states that the Company now has these attributes.

As mentioned above, it takes about 15 – 20 pages to properly construct a vision story framed by the long-term financial goals and containing adequate coverage of the subjects listed. In order for the staff to receive the full effect of such a document, though, it's important for them to get in the "right" frame of mind. It is recommended that you suggest that staff members sit back in their respective chairs, close their eyes, and clear their mind of the clutter that can sometime consume all of us as we go about our work day. Once in a relaxed state of mind, one can go on and enjoy the vision of the future of the organization.

Getting the Story Out

The work has just begun once the vision story is published.

Businesses that take care in developing strong vision stories – stories that clearly articulate where the organization will be in the future and how it will get there – are more successful than ones that fail to do so.

Once the vision is defined, time must be dedicated to raising awareness of its content among staff and management, alike. An entire employee engagement and Vision Socialization effort should quickly follow the publication of the story. Town hall meetings, company pep rallies and all hands strategy offsite sessions are part of the socialization effort

The best organizations stick to their vision and don't let their vision stories collect dust. Rather, they continuously review and adjust it so that it accurately reflects where the organization is within its business environment.

Together with a solid Strategic Planning Program, the resulting vision story becomes an important management tool that guides action and informs decision-making within these enterprises – it creates a platform on which an enterprise thrives.

Successful enterprises of the future will be characterized by optimized organizational structures, enhanced product and service delivery models and unmatched market reach.

By heralding a Vision story that accentuates sound fundamentals, yet unveils a future that people want to be part of, businesses can establish a strategic platform from which to introduce new, and extend existing programs, that position them to be nimble and quick, while still growing and evolving into broader-reaching and more profitable organizations.

All of this, of course, starts with a vision and is supported by a story so appealing it cannot be ignored.

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About The Author

James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr

James M. Kerr is the Global Chair of the Culture Transformation Practice at N2Growth and the author of The Executive Checklist. A specialist in organizational design and cultural transformation, he has been helping clients re-imagine the way work is organized and performed for more than 25 years. Kerr’s next book is due out later in 2016 and focuses on leadership and strategy-setting.