To be effective, break down the vision into what employees must do, make it emotionally appealing and avoid the blurry vision bias
BY JOHN ZINKIN
I am still surprised how often people are unable to explain clearly what the vision of their organisation is and what it means to them personally. Management consultants will say this is because leaders failed to set spe-cific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound (SMART) goals.
Although correct, I believe 10 steps are essential for implementing a vision successfully:
1. Be distinctive:
Many vision statements are couched in motherhood generalities, such as “being world class” and fail to answer the question “Why should I work for this organisation, as opposed to working in this industry?” Effective visions are distinctive, highlighting what makes their organisations not just effective, but uniquely so.
2. Engage both employees’ hearts and minds:
If employees are to go the “extra mile”, they must be emotionally involved and excited to come to work, as opposed to “just doing a job”. Effective visions must provide emotional answers as well as rational justifications. In today’s com- petition for scarce talent, this means being truly socially and environmentally responsible with an underlying moral purpose, as well as being a well-run business.
3. Connect to individual employees’ values and purpose in life:
For 1) and 2) above to make a difference in the way people work to deliver visions, organisations’ values and purposes should align with those of their employees. After all, employees, with their values and purposes aligned with those of the organisations where they work, can be proud of belonging as opposed to being stressed by any misalignment; or worse still, embarrassed at having to justify why they work for such organisations to their families and friends.
4. Provide tangible, emotional, specific measures of success:
Avoiding the “blurry vision bias” matters: “We don’t have direct experience with the future for a pretty self-evident reason: It hasn’t happened yet! So, we tend to speculate about it in very broad, general terms. Although it is useful to think about the future in general terms because it allows for flexibility, the problem is that when we communicate this generality and vagueness to other people, it often has some unfortunate consequences: 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.” – Drew Carton’s interview with Knowledge@Wharton, July 15, 2019.
Three vision statements illustrate how to avoid the blurry vision bias:
i. Bill Gates imagined “a computer on every desk and in every home”;
ii. President John F Kennedy stood before Congress on May 25, 1961, and proposed that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. It is a much more compelling vision than “we aim to become the market leader in space”!
iii. Henry Ford wrote: “I will build a motor car for the great multitude… it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces… when I’m through, everybody will be able to afford one, and everyone will have one. The horse will have disappeared from our highways, the automobile will be taken for granted… and we will give a large number of men employment at good wages.”
Henry Ford’s vision was clear as to what type of car he was going to make and for whom. More important, it reflected on an underlying moral benefit to allow families “to enjoy God’s great open spaces”. He also spelt out the measures of success; including the disappearance of the horse from highways, eliminating the then very serious environmental problems of feeding and housing the required number of horses and their resulting manure!
5. Provide a clear “line of sight” between the vision and employees’ day-to-day responsibilities:
Clear “lines of sight” between the big picture of organisational visions and what is expected of divisions, departments and individual roles are essential. This is achieved by breaking organisational objectives down into their constituent parts so divisions, departments and individuals know where they fit in, what they must do and by when. The apocryphal story of a management consultant visiting a quarry to evaluate worker productivity relates how he interviewed one surly stone mason and asked him what he was doing.
The stone mason answered: “Can’t you see, I am breaking stones?” The consultant then interviewed a cheerful stone mason who was working much faster. Answering the same question, the man replied: “I am building a palace!” The first stone mason had no emotional connection with the global objective, whereas the second did because he had a “line of sight” allowing him to connect.
6. Use language they can identify with:
Boards and top management talk in abstract, conceptual terms. Their mental communications model is one of “Believe, Understand, Do”; buying the concept, understanding its implications and then applying it. However, the practical experience of their listeners lower down is one of “Do, Understand, Believe”.
They need to know what the vision means for them personally and what they are expected to “do differently on Monday” before they can believe it and get excited. Senior managements must remember this when communicating visions; breaking them down into what employees must do, to be effective.
7. Differentiate between obstacles and objections:
Both can prevent visions being realised. However, dealing with each is different. Obstacles are structural or caused by lack of appropriate resources. Objections are emotional and psychological, raised by vested interests and may reflect real obstacles.
Obstacles are overcome by changing structures and allocating resources differently; objections are overcome by changing mindsets. Differentiating between the two when dealing with them, is therefore essential.
8. Encourage “speaking truth to power”:
This is essential to avoid a “culture of shooting the messenger” so learning from mistakes takes place instead of covering up errors for so long it becomes impossible to get back on track. This presents a real challenge in “high power distance” cultures where employees may be afraid to question assumptions and actions of people who are more senior.
9. Follow up on progress:
Follow-up is essential to remind employees of the importance of delivering and what they are doing still matters. It also ensures key milestones and deadlines are not being missed, which is essential if visions are not to degenerate into fantasies.
10. Take corrective action before it is too late:
All visions face difficulties when implemented, which can lead organisations astray. Once deviations are identified by items 8 and 9 above, timely corrective action to get organisations back on track is essential.
To conclude: Visions are compelling and effective only if they are distinctive; engage employees’ hearts and minds; align with employees’ values and purposes; provide specific tangible and emotional measures of success; and offer clear “lines of sight” so everybody knows where they fit in.
But that is not enough. In addition, managements need to communicate visions in language employees can identify with. They must differentiate between obstacles and objections when attempting to overcome them; encourage “speaking truth to power”; follow up on progress; and take timely corrective action.