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