What CEOs Get Wrong About Vision and How to Get It Right

Many executives don’t understand how to craft a compelling vision for change that will gain widespread commitment within their organizations. Leaders should start by asking themselves: What will people see, hear, and feel once the changes have been achieved?

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When a leader must implement a new strategy, especially one that requires new systems, processes, and perhaps people, it is the start of a new era. Success requires more than the right combination of capital and technology; it also requires a critical mass of employees to adopt new behaviors and ways of thinking. But too often, CEOs and boards in these situations think through the capital and technology issues much more carefully than those involving behavior and attitudes. That imbalance is a primary reason new strategies fail. And, in addition to disrupting a company, failure can derail a promising executive career — especially if a CEO took over to guide the company in a new direction.

When new behavior and new ways of thinking are required, an essential step is for the CEO, the board, and key managers to have an image in their minds of what the organization will look and act like after achieving its strategic goals. Just as great athletes are guided by a mental picture of the perfect jump shot or golf swing, key players in the organization need a consistent picture in their minds of what success will look like. That’s where a vision comes in.

The term “vision” is used often in business; companies frequently talk about “our mission, vision, and values.” The trouble is that most of the time, the word “vision” is used incorrectly. When CEOs say they’ve defined their company’s vision, I ask them to explain it to me. Many respond with something like, “Our vision is to be the most innovative, agile company in our industry.” To which I reply, “That’s a mission, not a vision.”

In cases like these, the so-called vision merely repeats what is already in the strategy, and, worse, does nothing to emotionally engage the people who are being asked to implement it. A leader’s vision — particularly if that leader needs to bring about significant change in the organization — should start as a vivid, credible image of an ideal future state. The clearer a CEO is about what people should do differently to achieve new, challenging objectives, the greater his or her chances of achieving the changes necessary for success. New behavior doesn’t come from missions, however aspirational, but from deep, emotional commitment to doing things differently.


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Comments (6)
Alvaro Gallart
This article is worth read, I agree that there should be a clear difference between "Mission" and "Vision" in order to orient/direct strategy. However, I think "Brand Purpose" is a better instrument to align/direct strategy.
Brand Purpose is to be shared by all constituencies/stakeholders and engaged customers as well, it declares the ultimate value the organization is to deliver to the society.
Brand Purpose is an alternative instrument for strategic foundation. I recommend to also be considered at strategy formulation.
Yuvarajah Thaiagarajah
Very interesting perspective. I agree with most of what's said. Many get the vision &  mission. Being a retired soldier I realise the military use "mission" orientation differs with what's used in civilian/corporate use. It tool me a while to decipher the relevance and application. However, I find at odd at the way vision and mission is interchangeably misused. 

My understanding is a Vision should relate to WHERE you want your organisation to be, whereas a Mission defines the reason for existence. The mission should specify what the core business areas are - products & services to meet stakeholders needs. Mission can be stated in several bullet points, whereas vision is captured in a KISS sentence. The biggest missing link I often find is the "deadline". This is important to inspire and drive the people to create strategies and actions plan towards that destination. e.g is "to become the top 5 company in Asia recognised for ........ by 2020" or "To become a developed nation by 2025". 

In a sense, the vision is that overarching or all important goal, that inspires people to rally behind and give priority to in relation to short/mid/long term plans and daily execution.
Jonathan Obise
I couldn't agree more.
Awesome read.
sets man
sets man
very educative.thanks MIT
Jeffrey Blair
From the article—
When CEOs say they’ve defined their company’s vision, I ask them to explain it to me. Many respond with something like, “Our vision is to be the most innovative, agile company in our industry.” To which I reply, “That’s a mission, not a vision.”

I agree with the author’s insightful observations about the role and form of an effective vision.  But he is incorrect to state that the above response can serve as an effective mission statement.  It does not accurately describe what business the organization would be in and begs for the Five Why treatment to unearth the real motivation or purpose for being sch a company ... to what end? That might reveal a true mission. In its present form it is instead a generic, under-developed vision statement.