Your company has a vision: Why can’t everyone see it?

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President John F. Kennedy announcing the Apollo program, May 25, 1961 - Photo: Wikipedia/NASA
Jul 26, 2019
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Knowledge@Wharton

Presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy famously challenged NASA to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. That vision galvanized thousands of employees with vastly different roles — everyone from astronauts to cleaning crew members — around the common goal of a lunar landing.

According to Wharton management professor Andrew Carton, the power of that message was in the type of wording used: It is visually concrete. If Pres. Kennedy had said, “Let’s aim to be number one in the space race,” would the results have been different? Perhaps so.

In a paper published in the Academy of Management Journal, Prof. Carton and Brian J. Lucas from Cornell University looked at how leaders craft vision statements — and specifically, why some are more powerful than others. The authors note that evidence suggests the more concrete a vision statement is, the more effectively it can inspire employees. Even so, research has shown that leaders often take the opposite approach, creating vision statements laden with abstract terms. The effect is what the authors call “the blurry vision bias.”

In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Prof. Carton said speculating abstractly allows for some flexibility with an unknown future. However, this communicates generalities and vagueness to others. He said, “It is not very motivating because it is not emotionally appealing, and it stifles coordination because different employees have a different understanding of what we aspire to achieve in the future.”

The researchers further found that incorporating visual imagery doesn’t necessarily make mission statements more powerful unless done properly.

“When people are told to focus on using different types of words, they are actually using the part of their mind that involves logical, analytical thinking rather than the part of their mind that simulates the world in graphic terms,” said Prof. Carton.  “The primary technique leaders can use to tap into this part of the mind is something called ‘mental time travel’: asking people to psychologically project forward in time and imagine getting out of a time machine and looking at the world around them. How has the world changed now that people are impacted by the product or service that you were responsible for creating?” 

In sum, according to the paper, when imagining what effect their product or service may have in the real world, leaders emphasize what the authors call the abstract “meaning-based cognitive system … and underemphasize the experience-based cognitive system.” Basically, it’s the difference between “Our goal is to make you happy” and “Our aim is to put a smile on your face.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What advice do you have for leaders when developing mission or vision statements? Which of these mission statements do you think is most effective?

IKEA: Create a better everyday life for the many people;

Nordstrom: Give customers the most compelling shopping experience possible;

Patagonia: We’re in business to save our home planet;

Walmart: Save people money so they can live better

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"I have always thought the Walmart mission statement was classic for being simple, clear and meaningful."
"It’s not about “word smithing,” rather it’s about how these words motivate and make your team feel."
"Today, with so many technology startups vying for unicorn status, there is a ton of “vision noise” in the marketplace."

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24 Comments on "Your company has a vision: Why can’t everyone see it?"


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Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

The key to a good vision statement is that it’s short and easily memorable. I see organizations come up with vision statements that, while with good intentions, are too long for people to remember. All of the statements above are short and can easily be memorized. That’s the first step. Next is that retailers must be able to train to the statement. So Nordstrom, for instance, can train employees to deliver on the vision. The others are more altruistic. Once employees know your vision, train them on how to make the vision come to life.

Michael La Kier
BrainTrust

Short and easy to remember are important, but the buy-in is critical as well. You can train the vision, but if associates don’t buy into the vision it won’t happen.

Michael La Kier
BrainTrust

Two simple yet difficult to achieve elements must be present to drive successful vision statements: specificity and engagingness. If it is too generic it just becomes rhetoric. If it is not something an organization can embrace as their own it becomes ignored.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust
  1. Do not use any word with more than 10 letters. This is not because your employees are stupid. It is because it forces you to be clear and precise in your language. It is pretty hard to be confusing using 10 letter words. And arguments that your vision is too complex to be described without more erudite language simply proves my point.
  2. Be specific. That doesn’t have to mean be numeric — but that helps.

I have always thought the Walmart mission statement was classic for being simple, clear and meaningful.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

” … visually concrete” does it for me. If all you give me is the mission statement/vision, I ought to be able to guess the company in a few guesses. I can’t do that with IKEA or Patagonia, and I love both brands. I can come close with Nordstrom and Walmart. Focus and clarity means providing some kind of boundaries. Give the “what” some boundaries. Give the “how” some latitude. That might have saved Blockbuster from being pummeled by Netflix.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

A vision alone is not enough. And trying to come up with the right words won’t do it either. It’s the leadership that puts themselves on the line for significant positive change that makes the difference. JFK put himself on the line by making that declaration and people rallied behind him. Without leadership stepping out for the benefit of their team and their customers, anything else is empty.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Be honest. Be very clear (Nordstrom’s is a good example of vagueness, Walmart’s is spot on). Keep it simple, and remind everyone as much as possible. Also note when someone (including yourself) is off course or, conversely, knocking it out of the park.

Michael Decker
BrainTrust
Michael Decker
Vice President, Marketing Strategy
1 year 2 months ago
The creation of an actionable vision (mission) statement takes courage from the leader who is staking their reputation and possibly their career on it. It takes courage because the purpose of the statement and the intended result of the statement is plain, clear and measurable. “Making people happy” is nebulous and arguable either way. “Putting a smile on your face” is not. “Putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade” is a crystal clear vision for what success will look like. And so our nation was able to embrace it and get it done. What does your company stand for? What are doing to achieve your clearly defined vision in the CURRENT marketplace? And how will you, your employees and most importantly, your customers know what success looks like? None of the above mentioned mission statements describe nailed-down tangible success, although each is closer than most. The most important attribute in business (and political) LEADERSHIP is clear, stubborn and indomitable long term vision backed by a (flexible) plan for hard work… Read more »
Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

A vision is only as good as the execution strategies behind it. It certainly has to be clear, concise and to the point. Yet there are such high expectations of firms, as they articulate their reason and purpose to the empowered consumer. Social, environmental and geopolitical stances matter more than ever, and somehow today’s companies have to stand for something far more significant than the product or services they provide.

Vision statements have been around since civilization started. People always want a sense of purpose and a reason for being part of things that is greater than just the job. My young kids have a vision statement they say every day at their elementary school. It’s simple and to the point, and both teachers and students are expected to adhere to it.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Well said, Brandon – and thanks for going deeper on this issue. You wrote: “today’s companies have to stand for something far more significant than the product or services they provide.” Could not agree more. Too many retailers see product and service as the end result rather than as a means to something meaningful, fulfilling and grand.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Thank you, Ian.

So many companies today preach about how unique their cultures are, and the social stances they believe in. However, bold statements only go so far. It’s far more challenging to execute against these mission statements, so what they mean spreads throughout the organization organically.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

I have always found a few great employees’ involvement to be indispensable in crafting the message – after a thorough discussion on attaining goals.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust
A senior executive recently complained to me that people are overly concerned – even wasting time – with words and their meaning as the organization struggles over decisions, priorities, budgets, ongoing turf wars, and even blatant sabotaging. My response was that communication was the first line of defense (and offense), that it is key and strategic, and that words are the smallest building blocks. It’s not about “word smithing,” rather it’s about how these words motivate and make your team feel. Well timed communication, bold and vivid, can bring an undeterminable future into relevant and concrete terms for customers, employees, and partners. The right words can evoke emotions that motivate and inspire. They can tap into our hopes and dreams. In doing so, these words will facilitate an organization to be more decisive and focused on the right priorities. Abstract terms and econometric arguments may be elegant and logically coherent but they will not galvanize the imagination; for that you need to reach into the core of our humanity, emotions and feelings. That’s how life… Read more »
Ian Percy
BrainTrust

An insightful and moving contribution, Mohamed. Thank you.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

For a bit of balance, I highly recommend Jerry Langler’s famous HBR article “The Vision Trap” about his experience with vision statements — how they led the company astray. And how they succeeded with a more fundamental vision: Make products people will buy.

Why can’t everyone see your vision? Often, visions are too vague or ill defined to be seen. Often, they don’t translate to customers. Often, they are ignored within the management chain. Rarely do they make sense to front line employees — especially given the high degree of mis-management at store levels.

For more reading, I recently wrote about The Purpose Disease and why companies are so distracted by big idea purposes instead of things which make sense to employees.

This is a very tricky area. Every company needs a clear sense of why it exists and that needs to be shared and meaningful throughout the company. But the vision process is far too often a silly process leading into the weeds of self-aggrandizement.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust
In more than four decades of organizational transformational work, nothing has driven me crazier that the issue of “vision statements.” My conclusion is that 96 percent of organizations have little clue of what having a vision actually means. I long ago lost count of how many times I’ve seen “…to become the preferred supplier in our chosen marketplace.” Utter drivel. IMHO of course. Nor is this is a bumper sticker or marketing tagline exercise! Unfortunately for the most part, this is seen as a mechanistic exercise; an “economic” expression, the “nomos” or measurement declaration. When expressed in this way the “vision” is about what the organization wants for itself. Usually it stops just short of “to make as much money off our customers as we possibly can.” I believe an expression of vision, of a richly imagined future state, should be “ecological;” the “logos,” the word, the deeper meaning of one’s existence. Put another way, it tells us what good you want to do on this planet. When done thoughtfully, your vision becomes something your… Read more »
Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

Well stated, Ian! Goals are measurable, economic; vision represents a deeper meaning of one’s existence. The two must be connected through actions facilitated by organizational culture.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust
First and foremost, the leader must have a vision of what he or she wants to accomplish. A vision is more than a goal; it is the future—what and where the company will be. A leader is obsessed with the vision. He shares it and his excitement about it with everyone in the organization— who must believe in it almost as much as the leader does. Keep in mind that vision is like passion: It can’t be experienced alone; it must be shared. A vision statement must be concise and direct. People will march for a sentence, but they won’t budge for a paragraph. As noted in the article, recall President Kennedy’s statement in the early 1960s that the United States would “put a man on the moon by the end of the decade,” or Martin Luther King’s assertion that “we shall overcome.” Research has confirmed the importance of vision. A study of the relationship between vision and performance demonstrated that companies with vision outperformed those companies lacking vision. Incidentally, this study reviewed a hundred… Read more »
Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

In my experience, vision statements are usually relegated to an outside agency of creatives who test one statement over another, ultimately receiving approval from corporate leadership.

Today, with so many technology startups vying for unicorn status, there is a ton of “vision noise” in the marketplace. Now, most of the world understands Uber and Airbnb’s vision statements. Uber “We ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion”. Airbnb “Belong Anywhere.” How many people understood Uber and Airbnb’s vision statement prior to each company raising millions and millions in VC funding?

Walmart, Patagonia, Nordstrom, and IKEA are well-established brands. Even their vision statements run the gamut from poor to meaningful. A vision statement is much like a crapshoot, much easier to be lame than powerful.

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

Vision and mission statements need to project a future yet should be specific enough to engage employees in achieving such vision or mission. Quite often they are interesting statements, but if they do not engage employees to accomplish the vision or mission, they serve no purpose. The Nordstrom mission statement is the most effective as it represents a clear picture of the shopping experience that Nordstrom wants to provide its shoppers. The other mission statements are not quite so clear.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Simplicity and measurability are IMHO the key attributes of credos, so I’m naturally drawn to those like Nordstrom or Walmart. OTOH, “save the world” slogans like Patagonia I usually find problematic: in addition to being (overly) lofty, there’s the basic fact that “best” for the planet usually means, not consuming some “better” product or service, but rather consuming nothing at all … always a problem when your business is selling stuff.

Josh Clouser
Guest

Effective mission statements are succinct, tangible, and empower the employees.

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

If you’re going to develop any sort of meaningful statement you need to first know what you stand for. The reason so many mission statements are wishy-washy is because the company hasn’t really defined what it’s about and is using imprecise language and jargon to cover that fact up.

Even these example statements generally don’t feel particularly clear or precise. A great statement should enable you to recognise the brand without being told.

The statement is just one thing though. If you have a genuine, clear vision, then it’s felt in everything that you do. Your staff understand it and can relate to it. Take Lush for example — its vision is clear in every part of its business. Too many brands have mission statements that they pay lip service to — making it part of their culture is what they need to focus on.

Fredrik Carlegren
Guest

Quite an interesting topic and highly relevant as companies strive to unify and motivate employees (and other stakeholders) to work toward the future. I’m a big fan of the Patagonia vision as it elicits emotion and purpose. Ultimately, a company’s leadership and employees need to execute meaningfully toward the vision. If not engrained and lived day-to-day, it can become demotivating instead of motivating!

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Braintrust
"I have always thought the Walmart mission statement was classic for being simple, clear and meaningful."
"It’s not about “word smithing,” rather it’s about how these words motivate and make your team feel."
"Today, with so many technology startups vying for unicorn status, there is a ton of “vision noise” in the marketplace."

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