Sonoma Investment Capital was a model organization. The partners who led the small but enormously successful firm were determined to reinvent investment banking culture. They wanted to create a place where decisions were effective but made by consensus, communications flowed up and down freely, every employee’s career potential was carefully managed, and dress codes were nonexistent. The dramatic design of its suburban headquarters office was reminiscent of a successful architectural or software development firm. It neither looked nor felt like an investment bank. Rather than requiring an MBA as the ticket for employment, the company expected that new recruits had excelled at the highest levels of academe. The young employees were full of energy, put in long hard hours, and were rewarded handsomely through a profit-sharing system.
As the organization grew from 15 to 350 people over a three-year period, problems began to surface. Turnover increased among staff as productive talent lost interest and burned out. There was an increasing number of offline discussions about the informal organizational vision: “Make gobs of money.” This refrain was becoming familiar: “Management says that the reason the company exists is to generate profit. Well, I need a more important purpose than that to justify the commitment and hard work I put into this place.”
Finally, at a companywide assembly, the senior partner acknowledged the need for defining a more formal vision and assured that one would be developed. “We’re a group of extremely bright and motivated people. I agree we’ve reached a point where we need a concrete vision. But I shouldn’t draft it myself; we’ll reach our vision through consensus.” Within a week, the partners met and designed a strategy that would begin at the top and cascade down to involve virtually every employee.
The visioning process began with fanfare, moved ahead in fits and starts, and finally stalled after three months. Three years later, there was still no vision, turnover remained at unacceptable levels, and many effective teams became mere collections of individuals working at cross-purposes. The original sources of discontent remained unabated, and the bottom line, coincidentally, began to suffer.
How did such a well-conceived idea, in a managerially enlightened organization, flounder so badly? The best intentions of some organizations can be overwhelmed when the work of defining a vision begins. By starting with a blank slate, the vision process can seem intimidating and lead to disabling frustration.