Imagining the post-pandemic corporation: what makes a great vision?

Let’s think ahead. With the Covid19 vaccination roll out in full swing, leaders are now imagining the post-pandemic organization. Visualizing how your business should look like some years down the road and distilling this future into a vision statement is your first step. Formulating a new vision, at some point in the process, leaders inevitably ask the question: “What makes a vision a great vision?” Since every organization has their specific history and context there is no generic answer to that. But there are some guidelines that will help you craft a powerful vision statement. I pulled these together, based on the vision statements I’ve helped clients create over more than a decade.

A vision statement should inspire action. It should address your main stakeholders in ways that they feel emotionally and rationally embraced. In my experience, the sweet spot for a vision, the space where a great vision can emerge, is where three balanced pairs of elements overlap: Heart and Mind, Detail and Aspiration, Purpose and Measurability.

Balance Heart and Mind

A great vision statement touches hearts and minds. What I mean is that stakeholders should rationally understand what the vision is all about; this includes clarity about the value you create for your customers. It also means that the vision needs to be relevant. A vision that makes sense but isn’t relevant will hardly raise attention, engage people, or inspire action. Addressing stakeholders’ minds is probably the easier part of crafting a vision statement.

But human beings are funny, right? We have emotions! And these emotions play a huge role in our decision-making process. When a manager somewhere in the middle of your organization sees the new corporate vision for the first time, she will not only have a rational reaction to what she hears and sees. She will also feel something. Or not! This really depends on how emotionally charged the vision is. Your stakeholders’ emotions will play a crucial role when it comes to embracing or rejecting a vision.

The following anecdote shows how paramount emotional engagement is: A master once went to his construction site to find out how the work was going. Arriving there, he saw a bricklayer who looked distant. He came closer and asked: ‘What are you doing?’ The man answered that he was laying bricks, obviously. The master kept walking and asked the same question to a second bricklayer, who answered: ‘I am building a wall.’ Finally, he noticed a very enthusiastic man who was working with energy and focus. He then asked the same question: ’What are you doing?’ – ‘Sir, I am building a cathedral!’ You see, it is all about charging what we want to achieve with positive emotions, to fuel your fire.

Let’s test this using a real-life example, Wikipedia’s vision statement: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.” It is this vision that motivates countless people across the globe to contribute their time, knowledge, and money. People review and contribute to articles in their spare time and make donations to the encyclopedia. Their vision addresses hearts and brains alike. Let’s test it: Which part of this statement speaks to your brain? It might be something along the lines of: ‘cool, free knowledge I can acquire’. And what is the emotional element that touches your heart? It might go like: ‘A world with free access to information for every single person will be a world more just, providing more equal distribution of opportunities, wealth, health, and peace – I love that!’.

Balance Detail and Aspiration

Let’s check Wikipedia’s vision against the second balanced pair of elements. Does it show detail while at the same time being aspirational? The aspiration jumps the eye: it wants to contain all human knowledge and make it accessible to everyone, free of charge. This is aspirational indeed. It speaks to our noble selves, to inspire a contribution to making the world a better place, to further democratize the global society by sharing what we have (knowledge) and by providing what is needed to keep it running (money). Your vision should be aspirational to make your stakeholders feel: ‘This is an endeavour worth participating in. It’s something grand and bigger than what I could achieve on my own. I want to be part of that’.

Is Wikipedia’s vision statement also detailed? There is quite some detail in there: footprint (the planet), customers (every single person), product (sum of all human knowledge). I even suggest their type of business (not-for-profit) and business model is partly captured in the term ‘free access’: it indicates a business model that is built on revenue streams other than charging users, for example advertising or donations, with the latter being the case. In addition, they imply that their chosen market is education. One detail is missing: a timeframe – it is unclear by when Wikipedia wants to approximate their vision. In their case, it might even be impossible to ever state that all knowledge is captured, given the rate and speed in which humankind increases knowledge.

Balance Purpose and Measurability

The last of the three pairs is purpose and measurability. Sometimes, vision statements are very close to an organization’s purpose. Wikipedia’s purpose is “to benefit readers by acting as an encyclopedia, a comprehensive written compendium that contains information on all branches of knowledge”. Here, the link between purpose and vision is evident. However, this is not always the case. Some of the vision statements I’ve seen clients design complied with all guidelines of great visions but one: a clear link to purpose. Why? Some didn’t have a clearly stated purpose in place which they could link their vision to. For other teams it was so obvious how vision and purpose connected that they forgot to be explicit about it. Just because the leadership team can make the connection doesn’t mean everyone else in an organization can. You want to make sure every stakeholder sees how vision and purpose match. Don’t leave it to chance.

What about measurability? The caveat to loading your vision with purpose is that you need to avoid sounding too vague or using jargon. The more jargon a vision contains, the less it feels that the leadership team actually understands what they want to achieve. Jargon could easily throw off the more facts-oriented rational types in your organization. The antidote: be specific about what you want to achieve. An example: Instead of stating that you ‘profitably provide life-saving health care logistics to those in need’ you could say ‘Doctors and cancer patients trust we deliver life-saving drugs where and when they need them. By 2025 we reach $1.2 bn in turnover, with a 15% RoS in the US and Canada.’ I don’t suggest every vision needs concrete figures. As mentioned before, you should find a balance that feels right. Be mindful about what your organization needs, and your discussion is headed the right way.


Tell a Sticky Story

To a certain degree, the art of storytelling might help you at this point in time. According to authors Chip and Dan Heath, what makes messages stick comes down to what they call SUCCESs: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, stories. A vision is nothing but a message or story about the future. Reduce it to its most essential components, without reducing its meaning, or dumbing it down. The stickier your vision, the better.

Is it easy to formulate a great vision? Obviously not. Trust in your team and design the vision one step at a time. Benchmark it against the above set of guidelines and take it from there. Even if you find yourself working on this vision for a few hours – maybe repeatedly – it is worth the time. We are talking about the future of your organization, or the contribution of the unit you lead. Don’t rush this. Your vision is what defines all consecutive steps, especially plan to reach it: your strategy.

Alex Brueckmann

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