Why a Company Vision and the Process of Creating It Is Critical: An Interview with Dave Gray

How do you define “company vision”?

You're asking a question that I love to hear because I am an artist, and my life has, in many ways, been devoted to visual thinking and visualization. When I think of a vision, the thing that comes to mind is that it's an exercise of imagination. A vision for an organization, or for any group, is about creating a picture of the future that doesn't exist yet.

Why is it so important?

What’s powerful about a vision is that it provides a picture of a future that people are excited about, and it allows organizations to start moving forward as a collective group of people. 

When people can get excited about the vision, they have a reason to come to work in the morning. It provides a shared picture that everyone can work towards and serves as a gauge that represents progress. Ultimately it gives people an approach that allows them to structure activities in a way that feels productive. People need that.

 

What makes a vision successful?

I believe a good vision should be something that's inspiring, believable, and plausible. Even if it is a stretch, it should be possible, and it should be something that is shared. The more concrete picture you can paint of the future the better because for most people, future vision is very vague.

It is also a deep recognition of something that is very real, honest, and authentic. It’s a dialogue between the present and the future. Every organization, consciously or unconsciously, has something it is trying to become. It has the next stage of itself that's trying to emerge. It's the nature of growth; it's the caterpillar turning into the butterfly or the snake shedding its skin.

The creation of a good vision should consider three things: what is the best future you can imagine, what capabilities do you currently have, and how are your customers going to evolve? If organizations are able to combine their current set of core strengths and unique capabilities with a clear and shared picture of the future, all while keeping an eye on the evolving landscape of their customers, the company vision will become a powerful tool.

 

Where do you start?

If it can't be drawn, it can't be done. The reason I say that is because I believe visualizing the future state is not only a good exercise in imagination, but it also forces people to think it through. If someone tells me their vision is world peace, and I ask them to draw a picture of what that looks like, it forces the imagination to figure out exactly how world peace would look in the U.S., in Syria, and in Paris. Simply saying their vision is world peace is dramatically different than visualizing world peace. The visualization process surfaces issues that can help people realize if their vision is too big or too hard and ultimately implausible. 

 

Who should be involved?

Creating a visual that depicts the future state vision is critical, and the process by which it is created is equally as important. Developing a vision cannot be an exercise that is done with the just the CEO. It has to be created with the team, and it has to be validated. When a vision is co-created with the organization, the end result is a shared picture that builds alignment within the team. We strongly believe that people support what they help build. The co-creation process creates a sense of ownership and advocacy that cannot be achieved by creating a vision at the top levels of management and pushing it down to employees.

 

How do we ensure that the company vision is present and relevant to our day jobs?

The picture of a vision should serve as a north star or guiding light to help accomplish, in day-to-day tasks and larger initiatives, the organization’s ultimate goals.

Organizations have a natural tendency to seek efficiency and increase utilization and profitability; however, if you run a machine day and night, it's going to break down. You need to have some time for maintenance.

It's the same with people; if the only goal is to optimize every hour of every day, it’s harder (or nearly impossible) for people to have the time they need to think about how they can do things smarter, different, or better. If there is a picture of where the organization is trying to go, things will have to be done differently to get there. The vision can serve as a tool for counterbalancing the natural tendency to optimize all the time. Reflecting on the vision affords people the opportunity to pause the machine and make sure they are balancing the short-term strategies with the long-term goals. The most effective way to do this is to make sure the vision is part of daily conversations. Hang it in meeting rooms, common spaces, and the foyer—anywhere visible. Encourage managers to use it with their teams and to think of it as a guidepost when making strategic decisions. Refer to it as a leadership team when determining new objectives. Include it as part of new employee onboarding. Set aside time each month, quarter, or year to revisit the vision and remind everyone of the best possible future for the organization.