What’s your genius? Building an organisational vision

Wednesday, January 13, 2016 - 13:39

Google ‘create a company vision’, and you will have enough reading material to keep you busy until next Christmas, but it won’t leave you much time to actually build the vision you're after.

But build it you must. In times of constant rapid change, a company vision is an important touchstone or compass for any business. It is an aspirational image of the future of your company. But it does more. A well conceived vision can inspire, motivate, and engage. It provides meaning and purpose as you work towards a shared future.

Your vision is also an important decision making tool, providing guidance on what should be open for change – tactics, operations, strategy – what is not negotiable – your values, and the future you are driving for.

Jim Collins’ and Jerry Porras’ Harvard Business Review article, ‘Build your company vision’ usually tops any online search list on the subject. In 1996, Collins and Porras outlined a framework to identify core values and build a vision.

But few of us are running a Merck or a Hewlett Packard. And some of Collins’ and Porras’ assumptions and timeframes ring less true thirty years on.

What they capture so clearly is the essence of a great company vision, and the value it can bring to any business, start up or established, as you seek to energise your organisation to deliver the future you envisage.

“Truly great companies understand the difference between what should never change and what should be open for change, between what is genuinely sacred and what is not. This rare ability to manage continuity and change -- requiring a consciously practiced discipline -- is closely linked to the ability to develop a vision. Vision provides guidance about what core to preserve and what future to stimulate progress toward.”

Collins and Porras, 1996

That’s the theory.

Now to the real world. How do you practically translate a brilliant idea you came up with in your garage, or at a makeshift office in the corner of your lounge into a compelling, inspiring story that brings others on board and drives your business forward?

Or, how do you distill the complex operations of a large team or business, geographically spread, serving a wide range of customers into a memorable, meaningful single vision that all can buy into and all can be inspired by?

To make the process tangible, Nick Ingram of Clear Thinking talked to Insight Edge about the process he takes companies and not-for-profit organisations through, to distill their plans into a meaningful vision.


How do we get a vision that people can engage with?

Visions do not exist in a vacuum they are rooted in the company story. This is where Nick recommends his clients begin.

“Your vision can’t sit in splendid isolation cut off from the reality of the organisation. It has to be authentically connected to the story of the business so far,” says Nick.

"Even start ups have a story, he says. And it’s important that they tell it authentically."


Finding your story: what is your genius?

“The first mistake many companies make is to start with “what do we want to be? when they should be asking “who are we already when we're at our best?”

To capture your organisation's story and to uncover the flashes of brilliance that reveal the company at its true best, Nick recommends posing a series of open ended questions:

  • Who are you when you are at your best?
  • What is your genius?
  • What are your flashes of brilliance?
  • What is distinctive about your organisation?
  • What are your strengths?

A vision that captures your existing flashes of brilliance creates a compelling story that resonates with the team.

It is a process of emotional engagement not, for now, an exercise in wordsmithing, say Collins and Porras. “It’s about capturing the story, and the authentic core values and purpose.”


Who do you involve?

“The best kinds of vision emerge when you engage more broadly than CEO and senior executives,” says Ingram. A vision can’t be created by ‘us’ for ‘them’. The more collaborative and open the process, the more engaged the team will be with the outcome.

Life is pragmatic, however, and the process is often kicked off by the leadership team. But the goal must be to roll out an incomplete draft and ask people to work with it, and to make it their own.

“The key,” says Ingram, “is to aim for a vision with enough ‘emptiness’ (an architectural term) that allows people to create their own meaning within it.”


Remember your wicked problems

All organisations today operate in a context of wicked problems. Horst Rittel originally coined the phrase when talking about social planning. It has been adopted to describe complex, interconnected problems that are hard, or impossible to solve, are without precedent and have multiple stakeholders. Climate change, conflict, obesity, ageing population are clear examples.

A clear organisational vision can help a company navigate wicked problems and stay true to their sense of purpose. Strategy may change, operational models be adjusted, but a clear statement of identity and vision serves as a true north when the business is tackling complex problems and evaluating choices.


and big hairy audacious goals

Big hairy audacious goals (BHAG, for those who love an accronym) are part of visioning proposed by Collins and Porras. The idea of adopting a BHAG in your vision is to help you incorporate big thinking, taking goals beyond the end of the next financial year. A BHAG is your company’s ‘Mount Everest’, or, perhaps, your unicycle ride across the Simpson Desert. 

The idea of including BHAG is to motivate and inspire with a task that while possible is not easy, one that fits with the purpose and values of the company and which gives a clear destination that all can understand.


Vision or compass?

One risk with creating a company vision, says Nick Ingram, is the tendency for people to expect it to do too much.

He encourages organisations to consider a multilayered approach and create what he calls a compass that can incorporate purpose and mission with time-bound measurable goals that the company can use to measure its progress.

Clear thinking's compass 

Layer 1: a single statement of purpose to answer the question ‘Why should the universe bother with you?’

It expresses ’the change you want to make in world’, or the value you want to bring to the world,’ or ‘the way you serve.’

Layer 2: Your mission: the task you are sent to do; the specific thing you do that will contribute to that purpose.

Layer 3: Time-bound specific goal against which you measure progress. For example: In three years we will be the number one 'x' in Australia; we will be renowned for our 'y'.


Nick Ingram: Principal, Clear Thinking. Strategy facilitation in commercial, government and not-for-profit sectors.

 Clear Thinking’s Purpose: Helping people think clearly – so they can have a meaningful impact on the world.