Saturday, July 25, 2009

How to Create a Shared Vision Statement

A vision statement is an aspirational description of what an organization would like to achieve or accomplish in the future. It is intended to serve as a clear guide for choosing current and future courses of action.

Having a clear vision can give a team direction and inspiration, and be the foundation for goal setting and action planning. In today's uncertain economic climate, having a sense of hope, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, is more important than ever.

There's two ways a leader can create a vision statement: by themselves, or collaboratively. The advantages of involving others in the creation of a vision are a greater degree of commitment, engagement, and diversity of thought.

When others are involved in the creation, it becomes "our vision". When a leader does it alone, it becomes "your" vision.

Unfortunately, well intended leaders have gotten teams together and turned what could have been a fun, energizing, productive session into a trip to the bowels of meeting hell. They focus too much time on the agonizing process of wordsmithing a document, and not enough time on what really matters. The objective is to energize the team, gain commitment, and provide direction - not a pretty poster and laminated cards.

So if you're taking over a new team, starting a project, or just need to take your team in another direction, here is a 10 step process on how to create a shared vision statement:

1. Get the right people on the bus

It all starts with getting the right people together. In many cases, this may just be your own employees. In other cases, it could be dotted-line team members, project team members, and other key stakeholders who might have good ideas to contribute and have a part to play in implementation of the vision.

2. Preparation

Schedule at least a 1/2 day, or a full day for larger, more complex scenarios. An off-site location is best, if possible. You want to minimize interruptions, and get people away from their day-to-day environment in order to stimulate creativity. For dispersed teams, a live meeting is a must.

Consider the use of a neutral "facilitator". That is, someone trained in group process that has no biases or stake in the game. That way, as a leader, you are able sit back and focus on being a participant, and not have to worry about the mechanics of the meeting. Removing yourself as the focal point also helps open up the free flow of open dialog.

Rule of thumb: for every hour of meeting time, double the amount of preparation needed.

3. Determine appropriate "input" to the vision.

Schedule the meeting far enough ahead of time to allow for preparation. Send out documents to review ahead of time, i.e., market research, competitor analysis, survey results, or any other information needed to prepare the participants. Establish the expectation that preparation is a must in order to participate, and follow-up to make sure people have done their pre-work. Following up may sound like baby-sitting, but it's also a good excuse to get a feel for where each participant is coming from, plant some seeds, and create a little pre-meeting buzz.

Consider adding internal or external guest speakers to the early part of your agenda. For example, when I first took over my current team, I brought in senior leaders to discuss company strategy and leadership development implications, as well as an external consultant to review trends and best practices.

4. Set the stage.

At the start of the meeting, review the desired outcomes, agenda, process and ground rules. Take extra time here to check for understanding and agreement. Doing this sets the stage for how the rest of the day will flow - you are modeling collaboration and consensus. Going slow here will allow you to go fast for the rest of the day.

5. Create and use a process that ensures full participation, openness, creativity, and efficiency.

A trained facilitator can help you with this, or you can design it yourself. The key is to have a plan and process - you can't just go in and "wing it" like you may be used to doing in a regular meeting. Here's a process that I've used:

- Explain to the team what a vision statement is and why they are important. You might show a few examples.

- Ask the group to imagine what this team, organization, or project could look like 3-5 years from now. What would success look like? What could you achieve? What would they love to achieve? If they were to pick up a newspaper 3-5 years from now, what would the headline say about what this group has accomplished?

- Either individually, in pairs, or in groups of 3-4, have people create those headlines on flip charts. Tell them to include pictures, phrases, or anything else to describe that desired future. Give them about 30 minutes.

- Ask each person or team report out to the larger group. If you are the leader, go last, so you don't bias the rest of the group. This also gives you the opportunity to incorporate other's ideas into your vision.

- The facilitator or leader should be listening for and recording on a flip chart key phrases that describe each vision. This is the time to listen and to ask clarifying questions, but not to evaluate.

- add up up the number of phrases (n), divide by 3, and give everyone that many stickers to "vote" with (n/3). Explain it's not really a decision making vote, it's simply a way to quickly take the temperature of the group and see how much agreement there is.

- Start with phrases that received a lot of vote, discuss, and check for agreement. Do the same thing for phases that received no or few votes, and ask if those items can be crossed off. Work your way to the middle items, using the same process - circle it or cross it off.

- If there are any issues where consensus can't be reached after everyone has had a chance to state their case, then the leader needs to make the final decision.

- You end the meeting with a list of phases that will form the vision statement.

6. Do the "grunt-work" off line

Group time should not be wasted creating the vision statement and wordsmithing it to death. The leader can do this off-line, and/or ask for 1-2 volunteers to do it. I've even seen it done during lunch to present back to the team in the afternoon.

7. Talk to the outliers

If there was anyone who disagreed with the output, or who's favorite idea was not incorporated, talk to them privately to make see how they are committed to the vision. Explore ways to make connect the vision to their interests and needs. In some cases. they may need to be given the choice to leave. For example, if Art was really passionate about being the market leader in the veggie market, and it was decided that you were only going to play in the fruit market, then Art might be better off joining the Green Giant team.

8. Re-convene the group and review the draft vision statement.

This is a shorter meeting, and can be done over a conference call. Go for "roughly right", or "directionally sound", vs. falling into the trap of drawn-out debates over using the word "grow" or "increase".

9. Review the draft with key extended stakeholders that were not at the meeting.

This is the time to review the vision with your manager, peers, customers, suppliers, and anyone one that has a stake in your team's work. It's a chance to get input and make it better, and to begin to build a broader coalition of support.

10. Communicate the vision and begin to make it a reality.

A vision is just a dream without solid goals and action plans. That's the team's next step and requires at least another meeting. Communicating your vision in a way that inspires others is covered in another post. Get some of your creative people involved to bring it alive in a way that inspires, using images, metaphors, and stories.

Investing the time to create a shared vision may be the best investment you've ever made as the leader of your team.

Credibility note:
I'm not just making this up - really. At a former company, I was a certified master trainer for a pool of internal facilitators. I've designed and facilitated well over 100 meetings using these techniques and others. I'm not sure why I needed to mention that, other than I haven't written much about this area of expertise up until now.


Anonymous said...


This is worth it's weight in gold pixels. Anyone doing this kind of work would be well-served by following it step-by-step.

My favorite is #6. As you are keenly aware, the participative dynamic can take over and it's easy for people to get into the "everyone has to be involved in everything" trap. It's deadly.

Keep writing. . .

Dan McCarthy said...

Steve -
Thanks. I like to end a meeting like this on a high. Getting dragged down in the minutia can suck the energy out of a team.

R J Hall said...

This is a great write-up. Peter Senge in "The Fifth Discipline", agrees with you especially with #10. His comment is "it's not what the vision is, it's what the vision does" and you capture that well.

I had the opportunity to help our department work through team and dept vision statements and his writings were invaluable. Wish I had your outline at the time, too.

Very powerful.

The HR Store said...

Excellent article, Dan. I'm going to bookmark this page and share it with leaders who find it difficult to understand the importance of vision!

My fave is #5.

Dan McCarthy said...

RJ -
Thanks. Well, Senge's a good second choice. (-:

HR Store -
Great, thanks, and share it with the ones who do too!

BomiM said...

Good one, Dan.

Having facilitated more than 2 dozen organisations in building their "Vision & Mission" there is just an important aspect to remember that the Visioning exercise is all about the "aspirational dream" while the Missioning one is translating the vision in to specifics,measurable, achievable goal posts.


Dan McCarthy said...

Bomi -
Thanks, you're right. I didn't get into the next steps in much detail, but most strategies would include both.

Kye Swenson said...

#2 is my favorite. Using an off-site location has helped my company immensely. I've noticed that when we have off-site meetings, it generates better discussions. Many employee are less nervous and can more efficiently talk about a project. The keyword here is "talk". Our staff has no problem with creating outlines or putting ideas up on the board, but if we can't casually talk about why something is important or why it will be effective, the process becomes futile.

Christina Bowen said...


Not that your credibility statement needs any substantiation, but I'm a professional facilitator and use a process very similar to this with reliably excellent results. This is a great post.

While determining and then espousing your vision is challenging - I find that breathing life into it is even more so. So few people can tell you what their organization's vision is even 6 months after going through an exercise like this. So, I love your idea of finding creative ways to present it. I've had different groups create skits before and while it takes some arm-twisting to get them on board - it's effective.

Dan McCarthy said...

Kye -
Right, if possible, off-sites are always better, even if it's a low-cost alternative.

Christina -
Thanks! Agree, I've seen the same thing, it can become a feel-good activity without serious follow-up.

Mike King said...

This is a great summary of steps with wise words throughout. Much of this could be used for any meeting, not just the shared vision planning. I particularly like the preparation points, this is something most people fail at regularly for meetings.

Anonymous said...

Dan - another home run. Great process outline. Having done quite a bit of this work myself, and followed much (but not all!) of your suggested steps, I have found that real, sustainable excitement can be generated when the vision is big, yet simple, and stretches just beyond what the organization can do by itself. The mission, as posted by BomiM above, then gets into the "what we do and with what audience" specifics. And in the spirit of "measure twice, cut once" my fave is #3 - preparation can make it or break it.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mike -

Thanks, and good luck with your new blog. I like what you've written so far!

Anne Perschel said...

Nice concise roadmap for what to do and why. I am sending this to a client who developed the vision on his own and is now engaging others to help revise.

Two suggestions:
1. Use activities that also access the right and more creative side of the brain. I ask folks to imagine the organization on the cover of Business Week or Fortune in 3-5 years. People in the room are in the picture. What are they doing? Why is the organization being featured?

2.Create more engagement by having people see this as a story about them. Ask them to visualize sitting by a fire telling their grandchildren about the great company they helped to create. What's the story that they are telling?

Dan McCarthy said...

Anne -
I LOVE these questions! Thanks. I'm also in the middle of one of these and and going to use your questions. Thanks!

Robynly said...

Thanks for your sharing! I have recently joined my family's business where there is comparatively minimal business training and education, myself included. However we do have passion and commitment in a complicated landscape. Recently I have been given the responsibility to implement some major projects that I believe will be critical for the business's sustainability. Information from people like yourself is a godsend for me. Stay tuned on how it goes!