A politician gets on stage and says,
"We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations."
It's an interesting roadmap. Space craft, engine development: these sound like good initiatives. Maybe not anything to write home about, though.
If that's all that this politician told his audience, he might win over a few space enthusiasts. But for most? Meh.
Lucky for us, that quote's taken out of context. Here's the whole paragraph:
"First, 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 for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."
Now that's exciting. That's bold. It's ambitious. It's daunting. It's a cause that people will want to get behind.
This is, of course, John F. Kennedy's famous "moon shot" speech, delivered to Congress in May, 1961. A little over eight years later, Neil Armstrong would indeed set foot on the moon.
We're not all going to go to the moon. Nevertheless, there's a lot to be learned from JFK's rhetoric. His speech illustrates beautifully the power of vision. It's a compelling, contagious idea about the future that inspires people to get on board and take action to support a just cause.
The word "vision," though, sometimes has a bit of a bad reputation. A "vision statement" sounds a bit out of touch with reality. It's fanciful, abstract, and superfluous, especially there's real work to be done.
That's an unfortunate misunderstanding.
A strong vision statement is an essential complement to any strategy. Your strategy shows you and your team the path. The vision is the promised land that you will arrive at if you are successful.
It's why all the hard work will matter. JFK's vision—that a man will land on the moon—is the premise that organizes all of those other activities JFK talks about. It holds the strategy together and gives each tactic heightened meaning.
Unfortunately, many vision statements aren't very visionary at all. They almost read like afterthoughts: a formulaic sentence or two—sometimes even following a mad-lib, fill-in-the-blanks style exercise—that people glance over and never think of again. Or else, they're bland statements about winning markets, or being the top selling brand of biscuits in the midwest.
What a waste.
“A good vision’s something that, if you achieve it, will end up in your obituary.”
The vision is something that you want to get right: if it's done well, it can guide your efforts in the order of years. It should give your team, your organization, and your brand its defining purpose and meaning. It should elicit a profound emotional reaction. Like-minded people should want—beg!—to be a part of what you are doing. Customers should be ready to choose you on the basis of your vision alone.
Your vision statement should inspirational. It's there to give your team purpose and even hope. It should also be aspirational. It shouldn't be something that's inevitable; nor should it be something that you feel is well within your reach. It must give your team and your organization motivation to push beyond their boundaries to make that change a real, tangible thing: something that they will point to with pride.
A good vision's something that, if you achieve it, will end up in your obituary.
In fact, more than anything else you'll work on, your vision statement should be an act of thought leadership. It's a clear articulation of your perspective: it describes the world that will come into being as a result of your hard work. And if your vision statement is good—really good—it provides fodder for endless pitches and marketing pieces that will rally others to your cause.
Practically speaking, your vision statement helps keep everyone following the same path. Without a good sense of where you are trying to end up, you will waste time and energy following divergent paths. Without care, you'll end up in what Melissa Perri calls the "build trap": you'll create new features for the sake of creating them, rather than focusing on how to get realize your purpose as a team or organization.
Your vision statement puts guardrails around those shiny distractions that can consume endless cycles, pulling you away from more productive activities. The vision statement, Roman Pichler writes, is your "first filter." "Anything that helps you move closer to your vision," he says, "is helpful and should be considered; anything that doesn't is not beneficial and should probably be discarded."
A strong vision can also help future-proof your organization. By focusing on a higher-order purpose, you give yourself flexibility. You won't be tied to the products or services that are in your portfolio today. Instead, you'll leave yourself open to all opportunities available to you—as long as they help you make progress toward your vision.
This means that you'll be able to reach more people. And, you'll be better prepared to bend and flex to the winds of fortune. Simon Sinek calls this "existential flexibility": by keeping your vision in mind, your identity isn't glued to whatever you shipped this week or last week. Instead, it's bound to the good you hope to unleash in the world—the dent you want to make in the universe, to borrow Steve Jobs' phrase. Your success won't be tied to what you get out the door this week or this quarter. It will be measured on whether you made progress toward your vision.