Aside

Without a Clear Vision

Vision is crucial. It is utterly irreplaceable. No amount of execution or financial success can replace vision. Why? Because, vision can lead the creative work of an entire tribe. (Not just of a few people who think about it all the time, but for everyone.) Vision is the art of seeing things invisible, Jonathan Swift wrote. Vision is the way to imagine what is needed, and then strategy becomes about being the one to deliver on it.

Without a clear vision, everyone has to wait around and see what happens next. They have to get assignments and read smoke-signals to see which way to go. It creates a slowness, a kind of wait-n-see-ness to everything.

I see executives regularly saying that they want to “transform the business” or “win the market”, but they can’t point out an end destination. And when I ask, I usually get that, “just leave me alone” look. But here’s the deal. “Transform the business” could mean just about anything, especially to the people who weren’t in the core room where the discussion and debate happened. It leaves too much interpretation up for grabs. It is fuzzy. And fuzzy doesn’t help. Fuzzy means no one can help you do it fully because they need to keep checking in. Fuzzy doesn’t turn on the spark of creativity to generate ideas on how I can help you. Fuzzy creates a dependence, rather than allowing interdependence and action by everyone.

Vision is the Why. Without it, organizations rely on the What. As in, we do this what, and then that what. Work becomes a series of tasks when WHATs are the main course. A diet of WHATs rely on management assigning tasks to make sure all the parts of the business are covered. Why’s don’t. Why says that as long as you are clear on the goal, work with each other to get shit done. Having a good WHY allows power to be shared, for momentum to be built for stuff to happen without having to check back in. Without it, you travel in circles, covering a lot of ground but not necessarily going anywhere. You stay where you’ve been because where you are going is entirely unclear. An organization that is doing more of what they did yesterday doesn’t necessarily need a vision. But an organization that needs to reinvent what they do, surely does. Having a WHY enables a collaborative HOW. It empowers.

Vision. It paints the goal, sparks and fuels the fire of purpose, and invites everyone to play a role.

Some primers for how this plays out.

  1. Never, ever have a statement like “transform the business” without a “to become XYZ” at the end.
  2. Share the narrative of why this matters, drawing on your own history. The bigger and better the why, the more people will be drawn to it. And the more they will want you to succeed … because you are the person manifesting that vision.
  3. Talk about why this Vision meets others’ (customers especially) needs. If it’s all about you, then it’s not really a vision, it’s a revenue plan. Here’s the difference. The vision can happen without your firm being successful. It is beyond you. But if you execute well, the manifested vision will allow your firm to benefit.
  4. Vision allows you to gather resources (partnerships, commitments, strategic relationships, etc) but it also requires people to step into the vision with you. Demand that of everyone working closely with you. A vision must be shared, for it to become real.

If I am ever impatient with a team (and I am), it is because they aren’t creating a vision. And without it, all things fail. I’m always sorry that I am impatient in my expression, but not for what I am fighting for. Vision is a necessity to all growth.

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22 Responses:

  1. Ken McDonald. February 21, 2012 at 7:41 pm  |  

    Very good article. I do share your view on the importance of vision. As a senior manager having a clear vision is critical.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. February 21, 2012 at 7:42 pm  |  

      One could even argue it would be great if each of us had a clear vision for the kind of world / product / work / family we want to create. Vision can be applied there also, yes?

      Reply
  2. Steve Campbell. February 21, 2012 at 8:38 pm  |  

    “Vision is the Why. Without it, organizations rely on the What”

    That’s a marvelous line that really helps to clarify the difference between vision and strategy.

    Taking it a step further if you’re getting too many what questions (I am) it seems safe to assume that there’s a vision problem.

    Your writing is always thought provoking and, in my case, often immediately actionable. I sense the majority of your work is targeted at large organizations but those of us in the small biz world appreciate your thoughts as well ;) Thanks!

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. February 21, 2012 at 8:41 pm  |  

      While I have a rich experience working in big firms, I’m spending about 50% of my time now with startups, et al. So I hope it’s transferable. I suspect that because some 20 years of history is grounded in big complex systems, I might not be toning things right but I’ll try and learn how to adjust my vantage. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  3. Charlie. February 21, 2012 at 8:40 pm  |  

    Amen. Similar to “Transform the Business” I’ve sat in meetings where the goal that was being expressed was to “Take things to the next level”. As you might have guessed details surrounding what that meant were sketchy at best.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 19, 2012 at 10:56 pm  |  

      I can only imagine how much you wanted to roll your eyes at that …

      Reply
  4. Glumda. February 22, 2012 at 9:48 am  |  

    I think the whole critical analysis, and Jonathan Swift’s central work parts 3 and 4 will help in this matter, but it requires a lot of things that people not have, if it lives in middle of the social acceptance.
    People does not accept criticism, because it could change the world, and this is the paradox.
    I recommend you a batch of wild short film blogs, what put the needle to sensitive points of this generation
    http://storyambient.blogspot.com/
    <3

    Reply
  5. Robert. February 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm  |  

    Thanks for the article.
    I like the connection set up between “Vision” and “Why”.

    The “Why” most of the times is understood as a principle for getting to the root cause of whatever problem.

    In this case the “Why” would get you to the real “Vision” of your enterprise / initiative.

    Reply
  6. Vivek Khanna. February 22, 2012 at 5:04 pm  |  

    So true… and well said Nilofer!!

    Vision defines a purpose that inspires passion that in turn ensure performance. Vision is the DIRECTION. How and What are merely DIRECTIONS.

    Yes this can be applied to work, family…. government …. everything !!!

    Thanks for the insights.

    Reply
  7. Raj Mohan. February 23, 2012 at 10:50 am  |  

    Thanks for this excellent one, Nilofer.

    Truly agree and have experienced “The vision can happen without your firm being successful. It is beyond you.”

    How does one take care and work on/ channel ones impatience with the team, when their whats become more important as it helps their personal metrics?

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. February 23, 2012 at 3:34 pm  |  

      I’ve been thinking about this question about impatience. First off, impatience only serves to push people away. It is inherently judgmental and no one responds positively to keep changing and growing when they are being judged for not doing it fast enough.

      Reply
      • Raj Mohan. February 24, 2012 at 10:30 am  |  

        Would you mean to infer that one breaks the big why into whats and give the team time to work on the whats which in turn will take the organisation towards the vision?

        Reply
        • Nilofer Merchant. February 24, 2012 at 4:25 pm  |  

          Actually, it’s just the opposite.

          Management in the 20th century broke the big vision into bite-size pieces and then handed it out into each division or person. That mattered when people did the same thing over and over again and needed information to be pre-digested so they could focus on their tasks.

          If a company wants to be more innovative, then there is a huge cost to the focus on “whats”. If you have educated, talented people, then you can give them the WHY and ask them to self-organize around how best to get things done (thus creating the strategy to get to the why). By doing that, they figure out what the action items are and they “get it” so they can also figure out how the other coordinating tasks need to adjust. Work goes faster, and unlocks the potential of people.

          Now some companies don’t know their why. Somewhere along the way, they focused on booking revenues and doing what they did already. But if a company is to adapt, they need to be very clear on the WHY and let go of figuring out the WHAT by having everyone own their piece.

          Boy, I hope I helped clarify … longer response than I originally aimed for.

          Reply
          • Raj Mohan. February 27, 2012 at 5:24 am  |  

            Thank you Nilofer for the long and well explained clarification and response!

            I do not doubt the theory, am unable to place/ create the metrics which can ensure team participation and accomplishment of the vision, the WHY.

            Also no B-plan presented to investors/VCs/ a board can pass muster if the whats are not specified. The why and what (customer)problem are we solving; what are the steps which we intend to take to get to the solution; and most importantly realise the revenue part!

            Thanks again.

  8. davidburkus. February 23, 2012 at 9:03 pm  |  

    “Never, ever have a statement like “transform the business” without a “to become XYZ” at the end.”

    Quite possibly my favorite line in this post. Great work.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 19, 2012 at 10:56 pm  |  

      Thanks David.

      Reply
  9. RC Paschke. February 25, 2012 at 5:27 pm  |  

    Terrific! But so difficult to practice.

    Maybe this helps… Here’s my map to discover, articulate and activate the Why How What; mashed with Business Model Canvas and the 3 Legs of Leadership; to generate meaningful pivots…

    http://bit.ly/ValueMapV2cTA

    Hope you like!

    Reply

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