Creating the Inspiration — Part 2

If you are willing to go to the trouble of creating a vision statement, shouldn’t it motivate your employees? Avoid three common pitfalls that can negate the impact of your vision.

In Creating the Inspiration — Part I, we discussed not only why you need a vision statement, but we also described its most central element. The core of your vision statement should clearly identify your direction or focus, as distinct from the direction or focus of your key competitors.

Yet even when you've done a good job of creating the core, there are a number of other elements that the most effective vision statements reflect. In this second of three articles, we will use a "case study" to discuss three additional factors you should consider.

A Case Study

Some years ago I had a friend who started his own IT consulting company. With a market favorable to independent IT consulting companies, Ernie's company quickly grew to about 65 employees. But almost as quickly, he encountered a slowdown in his growth. It was then that Ernie realized he needed to think about his business in a more disciplined way.

Ernie thought about his current customers (which helped frame his target market), he studied his competitors (these included companies of equivalent size and some much larger), and he reflected on the current capabilities of his company. After several weeks of thought, Ernie crafted the first draft of his vision statement:

We will create the most successful IT consulting, systems integration and business process outsourcing company in the world.

I didn't tell Ernie that his first attempt fell far short of ideal; rather I suggested that he discuss it with some key employees, especially ones that would give him candid feedback. Ernie agreed and their reactions are discussed below. They highlight a number of considerations which I discuss in this article and will continue to do so in the next.

Motivating the Team

Lesson 1 — Keep the scope of your vision within the appropriate bounds: The very first person with whom Ernie shared his initial vision came back to him in one week with a comprehensive plan for launching the outsourcing business. Earlier in his career this employee had worked for a business process outsourcing company and he believed that he knew just how to launch the business and the role he could play. He had clearly invested a great deal of thought and time into creating his plan.

But Ernie was pretty astute; he knew that they were not prepared to deviate from their core business any time soon — and he told his employee just that. The employee's immediate response was, "then why are we even talking about business process outsourcing?"

The scope of your vision statement should be broad enough to encompass all that you want to do, but not so broad that you open up areas in which you have no distinctive competence. While Ernie's scope was broad enough, it failed the second half of the test; he spoke of areas where his company had no existing capability, as well as no near-term plan for adding that capability.

This particular problem is one that I have seen repeated many times. While you want employees to think creatively about your business, you don't want them to spend their energy and creative thought considering markets, geographies, products or other ideas that take you well outside your core capability or your ability to differentiate. Allowing them to spend their creative energy in areas that you are not prepared to consider is de-motivating — the opposite of what you want a vision statement to do.

Lesson 2 — You want a lofty goal, but it should be realistic: Without knowing about vision statements and what Ernie was trying to accomplish, another of Ernie's employees responded that he thought Ernie's vision for the business was a "pipe dream." While stated differently, I raised the same issue. I asked, "Is this something you wish will happen, or do you have a plan to make it happen." Ernie's reply was, "Does it matter?"

To answer his question, I offered that as a small child, Tiger Woods could declare that he was going to become the world's greatest golfer. Like many other young children with grand dreams, Tiger could claim that as his vision for his future. But the difference, I explained to Ernie, is that Tiger only had to convince himself that he was setting an achievable goal. If he believed it, then it would be motivational to him.

"On the other hand", I said, "You now have 65 employees, hopefully growing to several hundred in the next few years, and they need to believe in your vision. But if your vision is so far removed from where you are now, and you cannot articulate a reasonably logical path to get there, will it really be motivational to them?"

Time and time again, my experience has shown that the answer is no. Employees have to believe that there is a reasonable expectation of realizing your vision for the business. It's good to set a lofty target, one that requires stretching to achieve it, but it has to be reasonably within reach — or they too will dismiss it as a pipe dream.

Lesson 3 — Your vision should be achievable within a reasonable period of time: One of Ernie's most respected employees was a gentleman in his early fifties. His response to the vision statement was, "I'll be long gone before this happens." Ernie immediately recognized the problem. If it was going to take ten years (and likely more) to accomplish what he envisioned, not only would it mean little to his older workers, but it probably wouldn't mean much to the rest of his employees either.

Even in their personal lives, most people operate with a relatively short planning horizon. Hence, to keep them engaged, the goal has to be readily visible to them. Goals that are not reachable until well into the future lose their motivational impact. In the end Ernie created an objective for his core business that was more "visibly" within reach to his team.

There is no definitive time period that is right for all situations. In larger, more mature companies, the timeframe can often be much longer. However, with all the uncertainties of smaller companies, my experience has shown that three to five years is usually about right to maintain the motivational aspect of your vision.

We're Getting Close

If you have successfully crystallized the focus and direction of your business, and crafted a vision statement that is most ideally suited to you, then you are more than half way home. And if you've considered the factors we discuss here — keeping the scope broad enough but not overly expansive; avoiding wishful thinking; and making the goal achievable in a timeframe people can connect with — then you have retained the motivational impact and are well on the way to having a powerful vision statement.

In the last of this three part series we will explore a few final considerations needed to create the ideal vision statement. We will also talk about how to get the most out of your newly crafted vision for the business. Finally, I will offer several questions for us to ponder — questions that will serve as a litmus test in determining whether or not you have an effective vision statement for your business.

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