Wednesday, January 12, 2011

VISION -- Oops! There I go again!

I find I am not done with the vision thing!  So, this is a follow-up to my previous post!

Once we separate Stab (stating the obvious) visions and Real visions, vision and strategy become quite intertwined.  Yes, vision is still the distant objective; and strategy more the “how” of achieving that vision in the shortest, simplest way.  But without a strategy to match, your vision will remain on banners – whether on walls or online.  Conversely however, a clever strategy may not need a clear vision to take it forward.

It, of course, helps to have a clear vision as well.  But it is not a necessity.  In fact, when the future is not clear, especially in high technology spaces, or where popularity or standards are involved, many companies adopt a strategy of ‘flexibility’ or ‘spreading the investment’.  That’s a case where we have a clear strategy (we will NOT invest heavily in any one technology / platform), but not a clear vision.  Rather, we admit to ourselves that our vision of the future is not clear.  That understanding drives the strategy!

Of course, many fail even with a clear and powerful vision.  One cause, as we discussed above, is a weak strategy to execute it.  Another is having a great vision and even a great strategy, but no execution capability.

A key element of execution and something I see more often is the communication of the vision.  Most Stab visions are followed with a routine communication plan.  Posters, banners, website updates, or at best, town hall sessions.  Little emphasis is placed on the style of communication: the language, the content, the stories, the context… and perhaps most important of all, the leaders do not pack it with passion.

In fact, I have seen this so often that I’d like to make communicating the vision the real point of this post!  Yet, rather than re-invent what this should be like, permit me to quote from the best.  Here’s what John P. Kotter said in his landmark article “What Leaders Really Do” in Harvard Business Review, circa 1990.

“Good leaders… articulate the organization’s vision in a manner that stresses the values of the audience they are addressing.  This makes the work important to those individuals.”  (Emphasis mine)
The operative word is ‘values of the audience’.  We just said the vision should not state the obvious.  Yet, it has to be made clear to the organization.  The logical way of doing this is to link it to the pre-existing values of the audience.  That is the insight of Kotter.  When the vision statement speaks the language of the commoner – whether customer or employee – when it is able to engage them, invoke in them the passion felt by the leader, connect with what they value already, that is when it would have served its purpose.  The word “invoke” is operative.  The idea is the audience needs to be able to see the vision the leader is talking about.  They should be able to convert the words into a visual of their own.  That is when a vision can be said to be communicated.  That cannot be done without passion and commitment.
Unfortunately, too many vision statements are filled with cliché and jargon to be able to relate to the real audience.  Visions like that of The Body Shop or Air Asia (Now everyone can fly) resonate with their chosen audiences – both employees and customers – precisely because they ‘stress the values of the audience’.

So, we have the development of the vision, which, to be effective, tends to be product / service / market / customer focused.  We then have its communication, which needs to connect with the existing values of the audience.  This, of course, is not a one-off activity.  To quote Kotter again, “Leaders also regularly involve people in deciding how to achieve the organization’s vision (or the part most relevant to a particular individual).  This gives people a sense of control.  Another important motivational technique is to support employee efforts to realize the vision by providing coaching, feedback and role modeling…”
Let’s see vision in action.  I think offers a great example.

To start with vision is not a statement for them.  Its just that – a vision.  So, on its website we see two vision statements!
In it’s ‘About Us’ page  you see the following text:
“So here is the vision:
One day, 30% of all retail transactions in the US will be online.
People will buy from the company with the best service and the best selection. will be that online store.”

Again, in a CEO letter dated 22 Jul 2009 , he says:
 “…our vision remains the same: delivering happiness to customers, employees, and vendors”!

That’s the beauty about real vision!  It is not about the words.  It is not a statement.  It’s the vision that is invoked.  That vision means several things.  Outstanding customer service?  Of course.  Happy employees?  Sure, that is what will make it happen.  But best selection also means engaging the best vendors.  So, you need happy vendors too!

So what happens to profits?  ROI?

Well, they have to wait!

Indeed, Zappos was passionate enough about the vision to stick to it all the way!  In July 2009, under pressure to deliver a return to Sequoia Capital and its other investors, the company announced it would be acquired by in an all-stock deal.  Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO explained to his employees:
“…We plan to continue to run Zappos the way we have always run Zappos -- continuing to do what we believe is best for our brand, our culture, and our business. …it will be as if we are switching out our current shareholders and board of directors for a new one… We want to align ourselves with a shareholder and partner that thinks really long term (like we do at Zappos).”

We don’t get many stories like that.