To Create a Powerful Vision, Ask WHY

05/05/2015 08:14 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016


If you pick a stranger off the street and tell them your vision statement, the best question they can ask afterwards (OK, besides, 'can I invest in you?') is: how? (e.g., how do you do that?). This means that you have them hooked and can now explain your practical path to achieve your vision. The worst question they can ask is 'But, why do you do that?' If you've failed to sell them on the 'why,' then nothing else matters.

My favorite example of this is an entrepreneur I work with here in Sweden who is creating an app to support children with autism. His vision statement? 'Making Autism a superpower.' I dare you to hear that and not smile, nod and deeply understand his why. Sure, you may not know exactly how he does it --yet-- but I guarantee he has your interest to tell you more.

Often entrepreneurs are tempted to create a vision statement which describes in detail what they are doing -- the program they offer, their target group, their service offering -- but completely forget to mention why they are doing it in the first place.

I encourage social entrepreneurs to always think big. It's important not to shy away from, and indeed to embrace, the aspirational in a vision statement, after all this is what you use to rally partners, teammates and funders to your work. And it's where you look when the odds seem insurmountable (as they no doubt will on your entrepreneurial journey) to remind you to ride it out in pursuit of something truly significant. Some worry that this makes a vision statement fuzzy. It probably does -- and that's actually a good thing! You have plenty of time to focus on practicalities -- operational plans, budgets and go-to-market strategies. Your vision is your time to shoot for the stars.

In helping dozens of changemakers create inspiring visions, this is where we always start -- why are they doing what they are doing? Why are they giving up a stable salary, a normal work-life balance, and general sanity to pursue their ambitions. It's clearly not just to provide some nice little service in a decent way. It's to make real, long-lasting change. As Simon Sinek famously puts it, we always start with the why.

In facilitating these discussions, I sometimes sound like a broken record, asking 'why?' after 'why?' after 'why?' when entrepreneurs present their visions. Asking why helps us understand the reasons we are actually doing the work we are doing -- what is our core? This also helps us focus on the systems we want to change -- the long-lasting shifts in society we hope to create -- and not just the surface level cuts we hope to cover with a band-aid.

An example of this might look like:

Entrepreneur: My vision is to give students in under-resourced schools in LA a better education.
Me: Why do you do that?
Entrepreneur: So that they can do better in school.
Me: Why is that important?
Entrepreneur: So that they can learn more things.
Me: Why does that matter?
Entrepreneur: So that they can be better prepared for life after school, whether that's college or work.
Me: Why?
Entrepreneur: So that they can achieve more in life.
Me: Why? (by this point, the entrepreneur is probably sick of my questions. I smile and press on).
Entrepreneur: So that they can achieve the same levels of achievement as students who attend schools with more resources.
Me: And why is that important? (Now we are almost there!)
Entrepreneur: So that anyone, anywhere can pursue their dreams.
Me: Why?
Entrepreneur: So that we create a more just and equitable Los Angeles.
Me: Great! Now let's put it all together:
Entrepreneur: We create a more just and equitable Los Angeles, where anyone, anywhere has the education and skills they need to pursue their dreams.
Me: YES!

Asking why has yielded a number of interesting 'aha!' moments for entrepreneurs. It's helped entrepreneurs understand what is at the core of their organization, and what is the periphery. It's helped entrepreneurs realize that it's not the specific tool they use, but rather their unique approach they take that matters. And it's helped complex organizations working across numerous stakeholders and geographies unite all of their initiatives under a single umbrella: the umbrella of why.

When it comes to a vision statement, why is your best friend. Focus on it, and everything else will fall into place.

What's the most inspiring vision statement you have heard? Why? :) Comment below!

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