Big Vision vs. Little Vision vs. Credible Vision

Visions that work are not always high-minded statements about transcendent value, spiritual growth, or the betterment of mankind. Regardless of its tone, a vision must be explicit. Vague sentiments like 'Service is our business' and 'We get it' won't get the job done because it doesn't have value nor does it ask people to own a piece of an overarching mission.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is a corporate vision that fills three-ring binders and is backed up with days upon endless days of seminars and vision confabs. Managers, do yourself and your staff a favor and remember this golden rule for achieving your vision: If it's too heavy to carry around, it's not a vision.

The most important aspect of a vision isn't how big or small it is (physically) or even how deep (spiritually), but how the organization acts on its promises and fulfills employee expectations. Timely and decisive action can go a long way to ensure that your vision doesn't become a hollow promise that simply reminds employees of the way things aren't.

"The vision thing is not that hard to do," claims Warren Bennis. A professor of business administration at the University of Southern California School of Business Administration and author of several books on leadership, Bennis maintains that the line between successful and failed visions is how they are sustained through action.

Bennis uses the metaphor of a three-act play to conceptualize vision building: Act I is enunciating and clarifying the vision. Act II is managing the meaning of it by ceaselessly talking about it and modeling it. Act III is making real structural changes in the organization based on the vision.

"If you don't coordinate the organization's policies with the vision, you send a mixed message," he says. "If you say we believe in teamwork, but you don't surface conflicts and dissent, if you say we believe in autonomy, but require 15 signatures to approve someone taking a 25-mile trip, the dissonance between the vision and your actions creates cynicism." And where cynicism goes, distrust is soon to follow.

Any change in day-to-day operations often brings a certain degree of chaos. No organization is totally immune. Adopting a new vision can be one of the hardest changes a company can make. And since we're talking about humans here and not cargo, the larger the company, the more likely chaos will occur.

So, if your organization is still reeling from the last time you tried one (a vision), try consistency, says Bennis.  Consistency in policy and procedure will be the only way you can restore credibility. Even then, plenty of people will remain watchful, waiting for any sign to expose management's intentions as counterfeit.

"Credibility is more than trustworthiness and personal integrity," says James M. Kouzes, president of the Tom Peters Group in Palo Alto, Calif.  "Leaders must have personal credibility to communicate a vision. Otherwise, why should anyone believe a pipe dream future? The leader must be perceived as having the competence and expertise to execute the vision, and as having the stamina to see it through."