Blurred Vision?

blurredIn a recent MITSloan articleDan Ciampa argues that many CEO’s get it wrong when it comes to crafting a vision for compelling change. Following is a shortened and edited version.

When new behavior and new ways of thinking are required, an essential step is for the CEO, the board, and key managers to have an image in their minds of what the organization will look and act like after achieving its strategic goals.

Companies frequently talk about “our mission, vision, and values.” The trouble is that most of the time, the word “vision” is used incorrectly. When CEOs say they’ve defined their company’s vision, I ask them to explain it to me. Many respond with something like, “Our vision is to be the most innovative, agile company in our industry.” To which I reply, “That’s a mission, not a vision.”

In cases like these, the so-called vision merely repeats what is already in the strategy, and, worse, does nothing to emotionally engage the people who are being asked to implement it. A leader’s vision — particularly if that leader needs to bring about significant change in the organization — should start as a vivid, credible image of an ideal future state. The clearer a CEO is about what people should do differently to achieve new, challenging objectives, the greater his or her chances of achieving the changes necessary for success. New behavior doesn’t come from missions, however aspirational, but from deep, emotional commitment to doing things differently.

CEO’s must enlist the organization’s most influential managers so they roll up their sleeves and become committed enough to new ways of operating to cause changes both in their behavior and that of the people they influence.

The most effective way to engage these key executives is to communicate a vision — a vivid, detailed, and inspiring description of what will be seen, heard, and felt when the company has implemented the needed changes. Anything that doesn’t meet this standard is not a vision.

Following are five guiding principles:

  1. Find your own unique way. There is no simple, generic way to craft a real vision, one that is a powerful asset for change. It must be tailored to the character of the company, must be described in the leader’s own words, and must reflect the leader’s personality. No one should question whether it represents the CEO’s true and thoughtful ideas for the organization’s future.
  2. Appeal to emotions often and vividly. As important as anything else, a description of the optimal organization must paint a picture that people are drawn to because it strikes them as more satisfying than today’s environment — in particular, as a place where their needs for achievement, affiliation, and control can be met.
  3. Describe changes that can be imagined. For the leader seeking to implement a new strategy, a carefully crafted vision is the best way to acknowledge the extent of the changes that will be necessary, particularly when those changes affect popular, long-standing practices. No one is happy to give up habits and ways of operating that have worked for them and that feel comfortable. Usually, people will accept the need to change behaviors gradually, after being involved to some degree in determining the specifics of new practices.
  4. Describe valued behavior, not values. In describing the vision, the leader should distinguish between core humanistic values and the behavior that will be valued in order for the organization to successfully change.
  5. Be both firm and flexible. A leader who is formulating a vision must be firm about core elements of what should be in it but can and should be flexible on others. Key managers must be included in the process of refining the vision and made an integral part of finalizing and honing it. They must understand what the leader believes is not negotiable, where there is some room for negotiation, and where he is not certain what is best and wants to discuss ideas.

You can read the full blog post here.

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