The Vision Thing

If you thought that mission statements were challenging (or vague, or meaningless) then you’ve got another thing coming: vision statements.

Mission and vision often go hand in hand in most strategic plans. The typical plan starts with a few words of text under the labels “Mission,” “Vision,” and “Values.” And the problem is, they’re often thought about pretty much that glibly. They are viewed as the shiny, glossy preamble to the real content of the strategic plan. This does them a massive disservice. Last week, we confronted the issues with mission statements, and explored what makes a good one. This week, we’re going to tackle headlong the subject of vision statements.

First, there is the question of what vision statements are supposed to do. And that, put simply, is to set a direction. That direction builds on and complements the mission. Mission statements are supposed to tell us what is meaningful and unique about who we are. With that understanding firmly in mind, vision statements are the clear-eyed, forward-looking aspiration of where we wish to go, what we want to accomplish and who we wish to become.

Many of the problems with how organizations think about vision have a commonality with how we think about mission. Statements are often vague, high-level and abstract. They don’t aspire and they don’t inspire. At times, they don’t even talk about the future, and speak much more clearly about what is going on today. In fact, many organizations get the idea of vision and mission completely mixed up.

Last week, I used a public sector example to illustrate what I was talking about. So to switch gears, let’s take a private sector instance instead. Interestingly, these can be harder to find. Corporations often don’t lead with their strategic plans, or make them widely available. In fact, many organizations consider them to be highly confidential, representing competitive information that would result in a significant loss of competitive advantage if disclosed.

Fortunately, that’s not every organization. So let’s take a prominent one that most people are at least peripherally familiar with: BMW Group. Privately held, they’re one of the world’s leading manufacturers of luxury automobiles. Their other two lines of businesses are motorcycles and financial services (providing leases and loans that allow people to buy their cars and motorcycles). In any given year, they strive to be the highest volume luxury car manufacturer, a competition where Audi and Mercedes-Benz are the other two primary competitors.

The vision statement of the BMW Group is: “We are Number ONE. We inspire people on the move. We shape tomorrow’s INDIVIDUAL PREMIUM MOBILITY.” The emphasis in that statement is theirs. And where they choose to place emphasis is interesting. On the word “one,” and on the phrase “individual premium mobility.”

Let’s unpack that a bit more, though. Number one in what? Sales? Reputation? Volume sold? Number one in the hearts and minds of clients? Number one in safety? In fuel efficiency? There are a vast array of things it is possible to be number one in, and not a lot of clarity in terms of what that is. What’s important, though, is that which aspect you choose to be number one has a fundamental influence on what you do, how you do it and how you present yourself to the world. It also profoundly shapes internal structures, processes and even culture. So a little clarity here can go a long way.

The other emphasis, “individual premium mobility,” sounds like it’s a bit more specific and directional. Certainly, you could take that the concepts of premium and mobility as being about luxury cars. And the idea of individual can be a proxy for drivers. But why not say that? BMW’s reputation is one of building high performance, luxury sport cars that are focussed on the driver experience. Their marketing tagline for several years has been “Built for drivers.”

Part of how BMW does this is about technical advancement; they are an industry leader in developing and evolving automotive technology. They invest significant resources in research and development. This focus influences every part of their products: engine performance, suspension systems, handling, driver interfaces, cabin comfort, and communications and entertainment systems.

But the vision statement for BMW says absolutely none of this. And, it’s worth pointing out, it says it all in the present tense. The vision statement talks about who they are, not what they hope to become.

Like the mission statement, the vision statement serves as a key test for the strategic plan. It shapes direction and directs focus on where the organization wants to go. At least implicitly (and also, ideally, explicitly) it also identifies where the organization chooses not to invest its resources. Everything in the strategic plan should derive from (and be firmly anchored to) the direction that the vision sets. And all of it is aligned with and supports the mission that tells us the underlying purpose of the organization in the first place.

Now, it might be easy to argue that this is all an exercise in semantics. And it is absolutely not. Words matter, but the clarity of concepts, direction and intent matters more. And that’s not what we get from BMW’s vision statement. There are a host of directions that they could pursue based on how their vision is currently defined.

If we care about inspiring people on the move with individual premium mobility, that could cover an enormous array of enterprises. Within that framework, BMW could become a manufacturer of luxury jets (not a stretch; they used to build airplanes, and their logo is an abstract representation of a propeller against a blue sky). It could also, though, get into the luxury airline business. Or luxury balloon travel. Perhaps exotic expeditions to outer Mongolia could be in the offing. Or a return to the golden age of luxury private railroading. The could even take a page out of Richard Branson’s playbook, an pursue luxury space travel. Fanciful as these ideas might sound, they all meet the test of the vision statement as written.

And while we’re talking about space, that leads to another very useful illustration. A frequently used example of vision (found in many a class, presentation and book on strategic planning) is the drive by NASA to put a man on the moon (an accomplishment for which only this week we have celebrated the 50th anniversary). This is generally used as an example of vision done right. Directional, aspirational, motivating and—best of all—actually accomplished.

But let’s take some time to explore that, shall we? The vision as articulated was a clear statement, expressed by John F. Kennedy, in his famous address to the US Congress. It states “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

On the face of it, that sounds pretty good. It’s directional. It aspires. It clarifies. It is abundantly stretch in nature, and with a reasonably long-term target. You can test against it to ask whether what you are doing supports, detracts or does nothing at all to help accomplish what is said. These are all the reasons that this particular line gets taught so regularly as a good example of vision.

There is another side to this, though, and one that I think is important to tackle. And that side starts with a fundamental question: Just why is it so important for the nation of the United States to go to the moon? You might argue that it was as a logical stepping stone to further space exploration (which certainly represents the current rationale for returning). Or to be a pioneer in the development of space technologies that in turn could benefit mankind. Or at least, could benefit US commerce, industry and competitiveness. While all of those turned out to be byproducts of the effort to put a man on the moon, though, none of them had anything to do with the truth.

A memo from JFK to Lyndon Johnson, his Vice President, dated just one month prior to the address to Congress, lays the real reason out quite plainly. In the not-inaccurate view of the United States, the Soviet Union was overwhelmingly crushing them in the race technologically and economically. The Soviets had strung up a line of firsts: The first intercontinental missile. The first artificial satellite. The first dog in space. The first man in space.

What Kennedy’s communication to LBJ laid clear is that the central quest was to find something—anything—dramatic in space where the United States could beat the USSR. Putting a man on the moon just happened to be the choice that they came up with. Frankly, this puts the vision of JFK pretty much in the camp of BMW Group’s: to be number one. But apart from being able to say they were first, there was no compelling motivation.

That’s not to say that there weren’t significant benefits of the quest to put a man on the moon. There were huge advances made in computing, in telemetry, in communications and in what it fundamentally takes to get to, survive and return from space successfully. The spin-off economic impacts that have derived from this effort are massive. But if we’re entirely honest about this, they are unanticipated by-products of a fundamental vision of “beat the Soviets, no matter what the cost.” And any solution offered that was big enough, sexy enough and visible enough would have done just fine.

Ultimately, the vision of an organization is critical and essential for any organization. Yes, it needs to inspire. It absolutely needs to aspire. It needs to communicate direction, and it needs to do that clearly and specifically. Well crafted vision statements—like mission statements—shouldn’t change that often. It’s why I call them “enduring statements;” they should stand the test of time. The time scale might vary, but if you’re changing them every three or four years you’re doing something wrong.

That sets an important test of its own, though. Vision statements need to be built to last. They need to keep on motivating, long beyond the original splash of their announcement. There are important principles and values that are fundamentally embedded in vision statements. For vision to inspire and sustain, they need to be the right values. Because strategy will be tested against vision, a statement that isn’t strong and meaningful will quickly be found wanting.

The right vision can indeed get you to the moon, and beyond. Just make sure you are doing it for the right reasons.

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