Last week I talked about the difference between mission, vision and values. Of the three, we always start with vision. And we do so for purely practical purposes. If a business doesn’t know what it wants to accomplish it is impossible to be intentional about achieving it.
But vision statements can be tricky things to write. Everyone seems to have a different opinion about what they should cover or how inspiring their prose should be. Most vision statements of Fortune 500 companies are of little practical use. I’m particularly fond of this example from the Swedish company Ericsson:
“Our vision is a Networked Society: one where connectivity brings people together.”
What does this mean? I am certain it means something, but without talking to the people who were in the room when it was written it's hard to know exactly what this vision will look like when it is realized. The biggest problem with this vision statement, as with most, is that it is missing NUMBERS. That's right, numbers are the secret ingredient to a good, practical vision statement.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First, we need to know what constitutes a good vision statement. There are a few simple rules.
- A good vision statement helps you communicate what you are trying to accomplish. This means that it paints a clear picture with a minimal amount of effort.
- A good vision statement is aspirational. It describes a situation that is not yet. It gives people working alongside you something to work TOWARD.
- A good vision statement comes from leadership. It is not developed in committee. When I help develop a vision statement I do it with the business owners. They are the ones that must provide leadership. Vision is the primary communication tool of good leaders.
What we want to address today is point #1. If we cannot paint a clear picture people will shrug their shoulders and lump us in with all the other corporate blowhards and ivory tower know-it-alls. Clarity is king. And for this reason we need NUMBERS.
Think about how quickly numbers provide context. This context is what allows you to fully understand the situation. Consider the following statements.
- "She makes a LOT of money!"
- "He's pretty fast."
- "I'm going to take a little time off from work."
These statements might be accurate, but then again, it depends on your point of view. Vision statements shouldn't depend on a point of view. Let's get more precise by using some numbers, and see if these statements provide more clarity.
- "She makes $250,000 a year."
- "He runs a 4:10 mile."
- "We are spending 2 months sailing the Caribbean."
Numbers are powerful. They quantify situations and remove ambiguity.
When we use terms like "a lot", "leading", "major", "best", "most innovative" we fail to really communicate anything meaningful. We may know what we mean, but others have no clue what we are trying to communicate. The truth is ambiguous vision statements aren't even understood by the leaders who come up with them. And that is shameful.
Being lazy with thoughts and language is most damaging to the leaders who wake up every day uninspired and without any directional compass to drive their big ideas. Getting clear with your language by using numbers is the most effective way to communicate your true North.
So how do you do it? I give my clients some homework. I tell them to start by writing out a couple of paragraphs, even a page or two, describing what they want their company to look like. Just tell me a story. Everybody has a different approach. Some imagine a future where they've just sold their company for a boat load of cash and they describe what they've sold, how they built it, what the toast sounds like as they sit on the beach enjoying a celebratory glass of champagne. Others will fast-forward 5, 10, or 30 years into the future and talk about what they have been able to accomplish in the community, how their children are involved, what their personal life looks like and how it has been enriched by the business. This is not difficult work, but it requires some time and effort.
With this homework in hand the business owner and I meet the next day to begin an offsite retreat. I start to poke and prod their story. I kick over rocks and try to get to the heart of what's important to them. Those stories contain a lot of information about their values and even their mission, but I'm after vision. And as we get close I start to ask about numbers. "What does that look like? How many people are involved? How big? How many customers? How much revenue? What percentage of the market? Regional or national? Employees or contractors? More than one location? How much volume?" The questions continue until we strike gold.
After two hours of this one of our clients said, "I want us to be a household name in the state of Florida in our industry." We were getting close.
I asked, "How many transactions do you need to do a month to get that kind of recognition?"
Immediately she said, "10,000 per month."
"How many do we do now?," I asked.
BOOM! Now we have context. Now we have a clear picture of what we are trying to accomplish. Two hours later we met with the leadership team and said, "Our vision is to become a household name in the state of Florida by doing 10,000 transactions per month." Everyone in that room knew exactly where we were going, and they were PUMPED!
Other clients have expressed their vision as:
"Become a top 100 company in our industry"
"Employee, lead and serve 1,200 employees"
"Create $100 million in savings for our clients every year"
"Open 5 locations in the 5 largest metropolitan centers in the Southeast"
These small business vision statements may not have the panache of Google's "To organize all the world's information." They may never be quoted in Harvard Business Review like Ikea's "To create a better everyday life for the many people."
But these vision statements from smaller companies, all doing between $1 million and $25 million in revenue, accomplish something more important. The employees, vendors, customers, and founders of these businesses aren't left asking "what does that mean?" And for a tool that is supposed to help you communicate, clarity is pretty important.
Vision statements with numbers not only provide more clarity, that clarity allows them to be more inspiring. If you don't have numbers in your vision it's time to stop being lazy with your thoughts and words. The people who work alongside you deserve to know what you are about. They deserve good leadership. With a clear vision great leadership becomes possible.
How's your vision statement? Is it clear to you? Is it clear to everyone else? If not let me know and I'll be glad to give you some tips.