Setting a Vision

Posted on Posted in COO, Priorities, Setting Goals

Setting a clear vision for an organization is perhaps the most important task for a CEO. Sharing and instilling the vision throughout the organization is perhaps the most important task for a COO. A clear vision that is understood by everyone in the organization and continually reinforced by the leaders will provide an intangible force that seems to be driving the company.

Your company’s vision is not the same as a mission statement. It is also not the same as any marketing message for your customers. It is a clear description of what the future can and should look like. A clear vision statement establishes the goals for everyone and every action. When all employees understand the vision and their role in the company, then they have a metric whereby they can measure every action they take. In other words, each employee can think to themselves at all times, “is what I’m doing now, helping us fulfill our vision”.

Notice that I use the word “us” and “our” instead of “me” and “my”. A clear vision that expresses where the team will be at some point in the future makes it clear that every employee is included in the company’s success and a necessary participant in its achievement.

A vision is a set of one or more goals to be achieved by some specific time in the future. This is very different from a mission statement which might include a set of core values or express a reason for the company’s existence. For example, the company may have a mission to provide some specific product to address a real market need, but the company’s vision may be to achieve a cash flow positive state within 18 months or to have 50 employees and $10 million in revenue within two years. The mission and the vision are quite different. The mission is an ongoing reason to exist. A vision is a time boxed set of goals. Neither are of any concern to a company’s customers, they are internal messages that drive the organization.

Customers are not concerned about your company other than to the extent that your products fulfill their needs, offer fair value and are available if and when they need them. Therefore, it is of no value to publish a vision or mission statement on your company’s website. You’re simply talking to yourself.

So how does one establish a vision? Generally, it is something that comes from the CEO, but it may be arrived at by the executive team (i.e. the partners, founders, C-level and/or VP level execs). The best guideline I’ve learned is that a vision must be SMART. That is Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. I don’t know the origin of this acronym, but I know that my greatest achievements have come when there was a clear vision of what was to be done.

A classic example of a clear vision statement and its impact on achievement was President John F. Kennedy’s call to achieve a manned mission to the moon. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy addressed the US Congress saying, “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 the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important to the long range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish”.

Let’s break this down as a SMART vision statement:

Specific – “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”

Measureable – man must make it to the moon and return safely

Achievable – President Kennedy was confident in the ability of NASA to achieve this goal. His vision was a rallying call because of the words he chose, “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal” and “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important to the long range exploration of space”

Realistic – Surely, in 1961, it was not known whether or not the goal was realistic, but by creating a vision of what was to be, those who were tasked to achieve it knew exactly what was expected of them. Yet, President Kennedy did express realism when he acknowledged, “none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish”. By doing so, he was implicitly calling on Congress to fully commit whatever resources were necessary, no matter the expense, to assure that the goal would be realistic.

Time-Bound – “before this decade is out”

History tells us that Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon occurred on July 20, 1969… before the decade was out. A great vision, resulting in great achievement.

Any vision statement – while perhaps no so eloquent – can be just as inspiring. To achieve maximum “buy-in” of all employees, the vision should be enough of a stretch to be a real challenge, while not being so out of the question that too many people lose confidence in how realistic and achievable the goal may be. Like President Kennedy’s vision, there may be no 100% assurance that something great will be achieved, but in order to achieve greatness, your organization must be committed to a concerted team effort.

When you share your vision statement with the organization, be sure to also propose an ample and appropriate reward that all will partake in when the vision is achieved. This will affirm to all employees that the celebration at the end will be a team celebration. Pushing hard towards the goal and celebrating success as a team will foster a competitive spirit, respect for each individual’s contribution to the organization, and an eagerness for you team to tackle the next vision when it is announced.

It is the responsibility of the COO, as the leader of internal operations, to make sure that every department’s goals and tasks are in-line with and working towards fulfilling the company’s vision. For example, if the goal is a specific revenue target within a specific timeframe, then requests for expenditures and staff to ramp up sales, customer support and product launch take priority over requests for R&D, expanding internal systems or other items that are revenue supporting and not revenue generating.

The vision must be reinforced with a commitment by the COO to prioritizing tasks and expenditures that have the greatest impact on achieving the vision within the stated time-frame. Any other task must be de-emphasized. When every employee sees that the vision is important to the management team, when a sense of urgency is instilled because of a hard time frame, and when they are measured and rewarded based on efforts towards achieving theirs and the company’s most important goals, then an interesting team dynamic begins to emerge. Everyone seems to be pulling their oars in the same direction and focusing on the score or goal. A sense of anticipation builds as it becomes clear that the goal is achievable and will realistically be met. This is how a high performance organization is formed and maintained.

I hope this article inspires you to think about where you see yourself and your organization in future. Put your vision down on paper as a SMART statement and share it with your team. Reinforce the message in every weekly or team meeting and openly share updated measures of your progress along the way and you too will have a fast paced, high performance organization.

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