This page is a work in progress, part of a multi-year effort to capture and share learnings, frameworks, tools, and processes to run organizations. See Running Organizations for more.

What Is Vision?

Vision gives detail to your mission and gives your organization a direction to move in. Purpose is abstract, Mission is big-picture, and Vision answers the question: "What will it look like if we're successful?" Great visions are ambitious but reasonable, inspiring but not overly fluffy.

Vision is World-Building

Inspiring visions are world-building. Being visionary is being an artist, creating something out of nothing. Creating a vision is an act of creation. You can't arrive at vision through numbers and measures.

World-building is about creating an imaginary world that doesn’t exist:

“It’s the practice of taking the ideas in your head, the sensations from your imagination, and allowing people to see what you see, feel what you feel. It’s as much about creating new things as it is about destroying old structures and assumptions. It’s an art, not a science." - Mary Annaïse Heglar (Source: To Build a Beautiful World, You First Have to Imagine It)

Elements of an Effective Vision

According to John Kotter, a leading expert on change, effective visions are:

  • Imaginable: Conveys a picture of what the future will look like
  • Desirable: Appeals to the long-term interests of employees, customers, stockholders, and others who have a stake in the enterprise
  • Feasible: Comprises realistic, attainable goals
  • Focused: is clear enough to provide guidance in decision making
  • Flexible: is general enough to allow individual initiative and alternative responses in light of changing conditions
  • Communicable: is easy to communicate; can be explained within 5 minutes (Source: Leading Change)

Why Do We Need Vision?

Vision Creates Commitment

A vision that people are excited about creates both true commitment and a feeling of responsibility in people. While managers often obsess over “buy-in,” a great vision makes buy-in less important or irrelevant. People who are motivated by a vision aren't just aligned with a picture of the future - they commit and take responsibility for co-creating that future.

"Genuine compliant" employees are great - they go the extra mile and do great work. Committed employees take ownership, they bring passion, energy, excitement, and they will change the rules to get the thing done." - Peter Senge (Source: The Fifth Discipline)

Vision Can Accelerate Change

We often want to rush ahead to create a strategy and then force those choices upon our staff. With a clear vision articulated, buy-in to strategic choices gets much easier. When you move to strategy creation without a sufficient vision, people ask "why?" and often don't get a sufficiently motivating answer.

"A good vision can help clear the decks of expensive and time-consuming clutter. With clarity of direction, inappropriate projects can be identified and terminated, even if they have political support." - John P. Kotter (Source: Leading Change)

Without Vision, Mission Is Just Words

Organizations without a clear vision can only define themselves by their current state. Missions are too long-term and too hard to make practical this week, this month, and this quarter. The gap between Mission and Strategy has to be bridged by a picture of the future that people can see and believe in.

A lack of collective vision often leads to fear. If we can't envision a positive future together, we will likely gravitate toward negative views of the future. Fear can motivate us in the short-term, but will always undermine a culture in the long term.

"The power of fear underlies negative visions. The power of aspiration drives positive visions. Fear can produce extraordinary changes in short periods, but aspiration endures as a continuing source of learning and growth." - Peter Senge (Source: The Fifth Discipline)

When fearful people don't take the Mission seriously, we have to lead through authoritarian rule and micro-management. Micro-management is costly and dehumanizing and usually leads to incremental progress, at best.

"Without the power of kings and queens behind it, authoritarianism is unlikely to break through all forces of resistance. People will ignore you or pretend to cooperate while doing everything possible to undermine your efforts. Micromanagement tries to get around this problem by specifying what employees should do in detail and then monitoring compliance. This tactic can break through some of the barriers to change, but in an increasingly unacceptable amount of time." - John P. Kotter (Source: Leading Change)

Types And Lengths of Vision

Long-Term: The BHAG

What Is a BHAG?

The BHAG is the long-term vision. BHAGs can be 5, 10, 15, or 20-year visions of the future. Most companies pick 10-year BHAGs. BHAGs should be highly inspiring and ambitious. A BHAG is not a sure thing and should have a 50-70% chance of success.

"A BHAG engages people—it reaches out and grabs them in the gut. It is tangible, energizing, highly focused. People “get it” right away; it takes little or no explanation." - Jim Collins (Source: Built to Last)

The BHAG links your mission to your strategy. As you create and evolve your strategy, the BHAG serves as the ultimate check on your strategic choices.

BHAGs are bold. That boldness can often create skepticism and criticism. Creating a positive vision of the future requires optimism.

"BHAGs are bold, falling in the gray area where reason and prudence might say ‘This is unreasonable,’ but the drive for progress says, 'We believe we can do it nonetheless.' Again, these aren’t just 'goals'; these are Big Hairy Audacious Goals." - Jim Collins (Source: Built to Last)

Example BHAG

From Jim Collins' website, the BHAG for 1954 Sony is: "Become the company most known for changing the worldwide image of Japanese products as being of poor quality."

Vivid Description

The BHAG is accompanied by a "Vivid Description," which gives detail to the BHAG and forms the seeds of your overall strategy.

The 1954 Sony example Vivid Description is: "We will create products that become pervasive around the world... We will be the first Japanese company to go into the American market and distribute directly…We will succeed with innovations like the transistor radio that American companies have failed at...Fifty years from now, our brand name will be as well known as any on Earth...and will signify innovation and quality that rivals the most innovative companies anywhere...' Made in Japan' will mean something fine, not shoddy."

Medium Term: 3-Years

Three-year visions link your BHAG to a more realistic and actionable vision of the world in the medium term.

Three-Year Visions are used in the two most common Operating Rhythms - EOS and Scaling Up. Shannon Susko's "3HAG Way" refers to the 3-year vision, and Cameron Herold's "Vivid Vision" concept, covered in his book "Double Double," also use three-year visions.

The "3HAG"

3HAG is the strategic link between a BHAG and day-to-day actions. It's a bridge that brings your long-term vision into reality. The 3HAG focuses on a "Highly Achievable Goal" alongside concrete outcomes like cash-in-the-bank, topline revenue, sales figures, and more.

"Vivid Vision"

Vivid Vision is another form of three-year vision. The outcome of the Vivid Vision process is a three-page document that describes what every area of the organization will look like in three years. That Vision document is shared with the whole organization and is reviewed during your quarterly planning cycle.

"This timeline is short enough to be seen as realistic and achievable, yet long enough to allow you to realize innovative and expansive ideas. As a result, employees can incorporate the blueprint into their overarching and day-to-day goals, all the while enthusiastically striving for the picture of an even more successful future you have painted for them." - Cameron Herold (Source: Double Double)

The Leader Owns The Vision

"Just as great athletes are guided by a mental picture of the perfect jump shot or golf swing, key players in the organization need a consistent picture in their minds of what success will look like. That’s where a vision comes in." - Dan Ciampa (Source: What CEOs Get Wrong About Vision and How to Get It Right)

Vision By Inquiry

Articulating a vision is the work of the top leader of the organization and the Leadership Team as a whole. But creating and evolving it must be a team effort.

At any significant size, an organizational vision created solely by a single leader is insufficient. In any organization, individuals have their own, often competing visions for what the organization should be and become. At scale, these visions compete unless they're aligned and guided by leadership. When leaders can feel out the vision of the organization, they can create a vision that excites everyone.

"If they feel like the vision is set in stone, no longer to be influenced, if they feel that their own visions don't matter, then the process can grind to a halt due to polarization." - Peter Senge (Source: The Fifth Discipline)

Leaders have to strike a balance between inquiry and advocacy. They have to reiterate the vision and remind people of it, but they also have to listen to the people and hear how the message of the vision, or the very vision itself, needs to shift.

Vision Is Not a One-Time Process

Vision has to evolve over time to reflect changing circumstances. As vision is reinforced, it will naturally evolve or change along the way. It's entirely natural that vision shifts as it goes through this iterative process. Leaders must spend time on a daily basis to listen to how vision might shift or change.

Talk to Those Who Are Frustrated

People who are frustrated with the status quo can usually articulate well their own vision for what the organization should accomplish and how it should change. These people's opinions can be powerful for shaping new visions. Their contribution to evolving your vision should help generate increased commitment once you've altered your vision.

"Whining is the evil twin to vision. Accurate whining is a careful description of how you wish the world would become. Whining is a sign that you have an opportunity for vision. They may be closely related, but vision is much more motivational." - Dave Hitz (Source: How to Castrate A Bull)

Encourage People to Articulate Their Own Visions

Continue to craft your own personal vision and encourage others to do the same. If you’re growing and changing quickly, don't settle on whatever you planned on a year ago. We need to constantly revisit what's important to us.

"We must allow multiple visions to coexist, listening for the right course of action that transcends and unifies all our individual visions. As one highly successful CEO expressed it: 'My job, fundamentally, is listening to what the organization is trying to say, and then making sure that it is forcefully articulated." - Peter Senge (Source: The Fifth Discipline)

Crafting a Vision Statement

"Can you create a vision that the frontline person can understand, and see how they fit into it?" - Susan Salka, CEO of AMN Healthcare (Source: The CEO Test)

Vision statements paint a picture that can't be captured in a Mission Statement. Vision statements are generally less concise than Mission Statements, and some can be multiple pages in length. Vision is painting a clear picture of the future and a Vision Statement should use as many words or images as possible to accomplish that task.

Creating a BHAG

Jim Collins' "BHAG Breakout Session" Process

Jim Collins' process uses a 45-minute meeting, and it's broken down on his website here.

BHAG Breakout Process
  1. Each person takes a moment to envision and write an article that they would love to see published about the organization 15 years from now. Include the name of the publication in which he or she would like to see it appear
  2. Transform the three to five most exciting vivid snippets from your articles into vivid descriptions that bring the envisioned future to life and write these on a flip chart. Test the vivid description against these test questions:
    • Does the Vivid Description conjure up pictures and images of what it will be like to achieve your vision? If the Vivid Description does not create a clear picture in your mind's eye, then it is not vivid enough.
    • Does it use specific, concrete examples and analogies to bring the vision to life, rather than bland platitudes?
    • Does it express passion, intensity, and emotion?
    • When reading the vivid description, do you think, “Wow, it would be really fantastic to make all this happen. I would really want to be a part of that, and I’m willing to put out significant effort to realize this vision!”?
  3. As a group, select or create a 10- to 30-year BHAG for the organization that encapsulates the vivid description and that is linked somehow back to the core purpose.
  4. Test the BHAG against the following questions. If you cannot answer “Yes” to each of these questions, then you have not yet succeeded in developing a good BHAG. When you have created a BHAG to which two-thirds of the group can answer “Yes” to all questions, write it on a flip chart.
    • Do you find this BHAG exciting?
    • Is the BHAG clear, compelling, and easy to grasp?
    • Does this BHAG somehow connect to the core purpose?
    • Will this BHAG be exciting to a broad base of people in the organization, not just those with executive responsibility?
    • Is it undeniably a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, not a verbose, hard to understand, convoluted, impossible to remember mission or vision “statement”? In other words, does it pass the “Mount Everest Standard”?
    • Do you believe the organization has less than 100% chance of achieving the BHAG (50% to 70% chance is ideal) yet at the same time believe the organization can achieve the BHAG if fully committed?
    • Will achieving the BHAG require a quantum step in the capabilities and characteristics of the organization?
    • In 25 years, would you be able to tell if you have achieved the BHAG?

Creating a 3HAG

In The 3HAG Way, Shannon Susko recommends working with your leadership team to create the three-year picture. She recommends spending one hour with the team to visualize the future, three years out. I agree that enlisting the team for help, but with the caveat that great visions are usually initially drafted by a single person.

3HAG Process
  1. Cash & Revenue - Ask, “How much cash do we want in the bank on this date, and what do we want our topline revenue to be for the fiscal year-end 3 years away?” Before any answers are verbalized, give each leader a 2 ×3 pad of sticky notes and ask them to write down their answer.
    • When all leaders have written their answers down, have each leader share their answer and post it on a whiteboard or easel, grouping the answers that are similar. Once all leaders have presented their answers, look the answers over and discuss what the agreed-on “gutted-out” amount should be for Cash and Topline Revenue.
    • Next question: What will be the total widgets we will have to sell in order to achieve that cash in the bank and topline revenue? Once all have presented their answers, look them over and discuss what the agreed-on gutted-out widget amount should be for Cash and Topline Revenue.
  2. Highly Achievable Goal - Next ask, “What is our 3 Year Highly Achievable Goal for this organization? Write a sentence that describes our company in year three — written with no numbers.” Once all have presented their answers, look them over and discuss what the 3HAG — the 3 Year Highly Achievable Goal — of the organization should be. This might end up in draft form or you can ask a volunteer to take a picture of the sticky notes to write a 3HAG to present at the next meeting.
    • Example: Paradata’s 3HAG was to be the “Leading North American Payment Provider.”
  3. Key Capabilities - Next Question: “What are the 3–5 Key Capabilities we need in place to deliver on the goals stated above?” If there are eight or more people on the leadership team, break out into groups of two; otherwise, do this individually and come up with 3–5 Key Capabilities that must be in place by the end of year 3 to be able to achieve the fiscal and company goals.
    • When all leaders have written their answers down, have each leader/group share their answer and post it on a whiteboard or easel, grouping the answers that are similar. Once all have presented their answers, look over the answers and discuss what the 3–5 Key Capabilities/Differentiating Actions of the organization should be. This will end up in draft form for now, but it will be good enough.

Creating a Vivid Vision

Cameron Herold's 3-year Vivid Vision process, covered in Double Double, is to have the highest-ranking executive in the organization imagine they've time traveled into the future three years from today.

They should detail what things will look like, not how they'll get done. I'm a huge fan of the Vivid Vision process, as it makes clear to every person in the organization what their department (and possibly their role) will look like.

Build a Mind-Map
  • Cameron suggests mind-mapping to brainstorm ideas for what the organization will look like, as mind-mapping before writing will help you avoid providing a detailed description or explaining how you're going to achieve the vision.
  • Cover every area of the business, all of your departments and functions as well as the interactions the organization will have with stakeholders.
  • Prompts:
    • What do you see?
    • What do you hear?
    • What are clients saying?
    • What does the media write about you?
    • What kind of comments are your employees making at the water cooler?
    • What is the buzz about you in your community?
    • What is your marketing like? Are you marketing your goods/services globally now? Are you launching new online and TV ads?
    • How is the company running day to day? Is it organized and running like a clock?
    • What kind of stuff do you do every day? Are you focused on strategy, team building, customer relationships, etc.?
    • What do the company's financials reveal?
    • How are you funded now?
    • How are your core values being realized among your employees?
Write a Three-Page Document
  • Write a three-page description of everything you mind-mapped, and organize it by function (i.e. Marketing, Finance, IT, Operations, Customer Service, HR, etc)

As a consistent tool for 12 quarters, I've found the multi-page writeup to be difficult to spread across the organization and reinforce in the day-to-day whirlwind. Summarizing the key statements from the write-up, and combining it with the 3HAG process makes it actionable, more easily referenced, and front-and-center in your day-to-day.

Vision Statement Examples

Corporate Vision Examples
  • Walmart: Be THE destination for customers to save money, no matter how they want to shop.
  • Ford Motor: To become the world’s most trusted company, designing smart vehicles for a smart world.
  • Chevron: To be the global energy company most admired for its people, partnership and performance.
  • General Motors: To become the world’s most valued automotive company.
  • Marathon Petroleum: To be recognized as a trustworthy, high performing team by our internal business partners; be respected by our suppliers; be admired by our competitors; and be considered the employer of choice by our employees.
  • Kroger: To be a leader in the distribution and merchandising of food, pharmacy, health, and personal care items, seasonal merchandise, and related products and services.
  • General Electric: To become the world’s premier digital industrial company, transforming industry with software-defined machines and solutions that are connected, responsive and predictive.
  • IBM: To be the world’s most successful and important Information Technology Company. Successful in helping out customers apply technology to solve their problems. Successful in introducing this extraordinary technology to new customers.
  • Raytheon Technologies: To be the most admired defense and aerospace systems supplier through world-class people and technology.
  • Proctor & Gamble: To be, and be recognized as, the best consumer products and services company in the world.
  • Prudential Financial: To distinguish Prudential as an admired multinational financial services leader, trusted partner, and provider of innovative solutions for growing and protecting wealth.