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Strategic Planning and the "Vision Thing" -- Fire, Not Fluff

02/01/2013 11:43 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2013

"If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there."

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland

A self-evident statement, right? Maybe. But when it comes to strategic planning, in our experience, it's not at all unusual for leaders who see themselves as no-nonsense, "impact players" to want to dispense with what they see as "navel-gazing," "blue-skying" or "platitudes" and just "cut to the chase." Even the phrase "the vision thing," famously coined by President George H. W. Bush, implies a trivialization of the concept.

Over 20 years of strategic planning consulting has taught us that what's behind this attitude is usually a lack of vision, or a lack of skill in codifying one -- or both.

Leaders and Vision
Just as not everyone can "be funny," we would argue that business leaders succeed to varying degrees in "being visionary." In our experience, "vision" is a combination of insight that perceives and defines a viable and compelling future for an enterprise, plus the "fire-in-the-belly" to turn others on to that idea. And, frankly, if a leader lacks these qualities, the result of a visioning exercise could well turn out to be pretty flat -- just like an attempt at stand-up comedy by somebody who just isn't funny.

But even when a leader has the insight and the passion, trouble capturing both in words that communicate effectively can get a strategic plan off to a weak start.

In the course of our strategic planning work with clients, we've identified the things that make the difference between visions that fall flat and those that turn on. Here's a no-nonsense summary of those elements that you can use as a guide when you develop your strategic plan.

Visionary leaders know that to gain followership a successful vision must be:

Vivid
A vision must constitute a well-defined "word picture" of the desired future state of an organization or enterprise that people can clearly "see." JFK understood this when he created the mental picture of "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Compelling/Motivational
An effective vision causes "creative tension" between the current state and the envisioned future state in a way that motivates people to want to "fill the gap." Unbelievably, in the 1950's, amidst the ruins of post-WWII Japan, SONY articulated the vision "to become the company most known for changing the worldwide image of Japanese products as being of poor quality." Talk about having vision and also "filling the gap!"

Aligning/Discriminating
An effective vision, at one and the same time, serves as a "touchstone," "discriminator," "organizer," or "screen" for weeding out irrelevant vs. relevant actions, options, and alternatives for achieving the organization's highest aspiration. So, significantly, Wendy's aspires to be "the world's premier fast-service [not fast-food] restaurant chain." And Otis Elevator talks about moving "people and materials, vertically and horizontally, over short distances," allowing for escalators and moving sidewalks as well as for their more traditional elevator business.

Challenging
Of course, as all of the visions quoted above illustrate, by definition, a true vision can never be a "sure bet." Instead, it must always be a "stretch," even a daunting one for any organization or enterprise. In fact, it's this very quality that excites and challenges people to work for something they may not even yet know how to do -- as was certainly the case with NASA, for instance, when Kennedy committed the US to the moon shot.

Verifiable
As lofty, as ambitious as a vision may be, its achievement must be demonstrable. This is what keeps it from simply being bravado, self-inflated puffery or just a grandiose wish in the right direction. There's no arguing about the pre-eminence achieved by SONY in the consumer electronics marketplace or the fact that the U.S. landed a man on the moon within the target decade. Or consider Henry Ford's vision "to democratize the automobile." When he stated it, cars were a luxury. Ford's follow-through on his vision made them commonplace.

Getting Off on the Right Foot
There's no doubt that crystallizing a vision is only the start of creating a solid strategic plan. Another way of saying this, though, is that it's the foundation or, more appropriately, the cornerstone. Everything else you do will be in service of achieving this paramount goal for your organization or enterprise.

So just ask yourself this: If there's no substance and fire in your vision for the future, how will you infuse those qualities into the rest of your strategic plan? Or, even more importantly, into your organization as a whole?