A great vision is one that unlocks human potential and creativity by painting a clear picture of what is possible. Stewarding, adapting, and continuously refining the vision is the top priority of successful leaders because it is a core component of the organization’s strategy. It is really hard to get it right, but there is a pattern that I have found in the work of great leaders that can be replicated. It can help us craft and steward better, more motivating language for our visions.
A great vision is one that unlocks human potential and creativity by painting a clear picture of what is possible.
When it is well articulated, understood, and shared, it serves to motivate people to apply creativity in their work. The kind of creativity that delivers value by driving toward the future described by the vision. With the combination of a clear vision and a motivated team to achieve it, a healthy, powerful strategy is in place. When a group of motivated people has shared clarity and alignment on the strategic output that they want to achieve together, they have the foundation required to also achieve great clarity around both the strategic and tactical inputs needed to accomplish the stated goals. Having a clear vision also helps you to attract the right people; those who care about solving the same problems for the same people that you have defined in your vision. It will also help leaders more readily identify when they have the wrong butts in the wrong seats in their organization.
When a vision is weakly constructed or poorly articulated, motivation languishes, the group will have a poor understanding of what capabilities are required to achieve it, resulting in frustration. Much waste will ensue. The earliest and most profound symptom a team will experience is confusion. A shared vision is a powerful part of any group's culture. Similar to all other components of an organization’s culture, the vision exists, primarily, in the language used to express it, making it critical for leadership teams to communicate it clearly. When done poorly, teams have one of two problems. Either they don’t have clarity around whom they are serving, or they are working to solve the wrong or poorly defined problems. When done well, clarity of purpose serves as the foundation for directional, strategic decisions and the primary guardrails keeping the organization on track toward a meaningful and motivating goal.
There is a distinct pattern of success demonstrated in the language used by the greatest leaders of our collective history and their followers in their visions for the future. They include an inherent understanding of who is being served, what problems are being solved, and set the context for the work being done. In their most powerful forms, they share a crystal clear understanding of what success looks like. These three components serve to powerfully motivate the people doing the hard work to bring the vision to life. In simple terms, a great vision paints a picture of how the world will look for the people we serve after we have solved problems for them, together. Abraham Lincoln was known to be incredibly purposeful with his spoken words and worked hard to get them just right. His speeches clearly and consistently set the stage for “every person” being “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” He chose words that connected with those he was leading and aligned them around the future he sought to create. Winston Churchill did the same, through language, when he rallied his nation to save it from being overrun by the Nazi regime through “the spirit of the British Nation… who have been bred to value freedom far above their lives.” Mother Teresa caused a huge shift in humanity by painting pictures of a more humane and more empathetic world with her words and showing us how it is possible to live into them.
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” — Mother Teresa
Nelson Mandela ended apartheid in South Africa through his vision for an authentic democracy. This is the pattern that can be seen in the language of the greatest leaders of our collective history.
Not all of us are trying to change the world in the same way as Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela, but each of us does want to believe that our work matters to the people we are serving. We want our efforts to have meaning and we can take a lesson from the playbooks of great leaders about how to create an environment that improves our collective chances of success. The pattern that we can replicate from these leaders is not complicated. It lies in clarifying the language we use to foster our vision, with our team. Constructing a great vision, however, is hard work and the team must develop the ability to steward it, deepen it and pivot it over time to maximize strategic success. This is particularly important when there is a shock to the environment that requires a pivot.
These are the three high-level components of a powerful vision that show up in the language of the great leaders of our collective history. They show up in all domains if you look closely enough: politics, human rights, and in business.
1. People. Only when people have extreme clarity about who they are setting out to serve, can groups of people dig in to understand why they would care and how they will connect with the problems to be solved. When groups have this clarity, they also know the priority order of whom they are serving, and have a clear understanding of who they are not serving. This is not an easy task. Understanding the complex ecosystem of perspectives associated with any worthwhile vision is constantly shifting and has layers of complexity. We will dive a little deeper into this later.
2. Problems. With clarity about who is to be served by our vision, the group can determine what problems can and should be solved for them. Ultimately, we want to know what problems this organization is uniquely poised to solve for them that will turn them into advocates. In psychology, this is called needs satisfaction, and there is a tremendous body of work around this in the academic community. In the business lexicon, it is referred to as “understanding the problem space,” “clarifying the underlying concerns,” “communicating the jobs-to-be-done,” or “articulating the benefits” for your consumers vs. the features. The key is in the articulation and prioritization of the problems being solved for the benefactors of the organization’s hard work. When it is done well, the group also knows which problems will not be solved. This too is a complex and multi-layered problem, which I will dissect in another article. This combination of having clarity around who is being served and what problems are being solved that will turn these people into advocates allows us to communicate how will be uniquely positioned in the market. The only thing missing is having clarity around our strategic success.
3. Metrics. Having a clear understanding of what success looks like has the power to be incredibly motivating for people. Articulating a set of clear and objective outcome metrics that demonstrate strategic, as well as tactical, success over time is the final component of a great vision.
PEOPLE AND PROBLEMS
A powerful vision for your firm is one that clearly recognizes the need to create great experiences for your customers in the process of solving problems that they care about. When you solve problems gracefully by producing a great experience, you building great relationships, and that can be measured through trust, loyalty, and advocacy. Now, let us take a graphical look at how we might structure our vision. We described earlier that the vision must include a crystal clear understanding of the people in your organizational ecosystem and the problems that you solve for them. The graph below shows how creating and sustaining as much focus as possible on the core group of people whom you can turn into advocates, through experience, is the key to a great vision. It gives us access to discussing how and when to pivot.
Obviously, your organization cannot solve all problems for all people. What uniquely positions your organization and creates the opportunity to generate a profit is your ability to understand, target, and service a group of people that you can turn into your advocates by solving a core set of problems that is valuable to them in the context that you are serving.
Maximizing this equation also requires a distinct understanding of who does not fit this mold. Let’s call this our core advocacy position. If we were to draw a simple graph that shows the number of persona sets (people) that we serve on the vertical and the problem sets that we solve on the horizontal, our core advocacy position would be found in the lower left-hand quadrant of the graph. As I said before, this is a difficult task. It is such a difficult task, I will punt it again to discuss in another article on dominance hierarchies in business. It is complicated because it involves creating clarity around all of the relationships that the organization has to sustain, from employees and vendors to investors and customers. The key to understanding here is that there are a limited number of people whom you can productively turn into advocates for your organization and without a clear understanding of who we are here to serve, confusion will ensue.
Place the subset of customers that you have the most success creating a sustainable advocacy relationship with in the number 1 spot toward the core. Place the second most important group of people that you can create sustainable advocacy relationships within the number 2 spot, and so on. Do the same with the problems that you solve for those people with the most important problems on the x-axis in the number 1 spot, and so on. It now becomes easy to see what group of people most of your energy should be focused on serving. But, this won’t last forever.
At some point, every organization is faced with great opportunities to expand the core advocacy position. These opportunities come in one of two categories. The first is to expand the market base. A smart sales executive will inevitably build a relationship with someone who needs to have a problem solved that lies within our domain of expertise, but is outside of the current core advocacy position in the upper left-hand range of the chart, shown in purple. In other words, they want to expand the core set of people that we solve problems for. This sounds exciting. We can take our expertise and expand into a new segment, it shouldn’t cause us too much more work in theory and we will be able to generate more revenue which will lead to more profit. “An authentic win-win,” says the exec.
Another set of opportunities lies in our ability to expand our core advocacy position by solving more problems. In this case, a smart salesperson will have a deep conversation with one of your best customers and uncover a fantastic market opportunity to solve a very different, but important problem for our existing advocates that will deepen our relationship and, thus, deepen the level of advocacy that we can achieve with them. On the graph, this will allow us to expand into the lower right-hand quadrant, shown in blue. This sounds awesome. We can learn a new skill, develop a new feature or provide a new service that will generate more revenue opportunities that will ultimately lead to a more sustainable relationship and long-term profit.
Both of these categorical changes to your vision are inevitable and necessary for every business, eventually. Having to make these types of decisions forms the core of your visioning and the essence of your organizational strategy. Changes to how you define your core advocacy position are critical to establishing the right capabilities, the right roadmap, and finding the right people to put on your bus.
When you pivot your core advocacy position, the ripple effects throughout your business can be profound. There is no way in which you can take your limited and fixed set of resources and expand your customer base or learn to solve more problems without causing diffusion of your ability to continue to maintain your existing core advocacy position. Every attempt to expand will cause some diffusion to your ability to service the core, historical advocates. When you point your core capability set at a shiny new market, you lose some focus on the market you had. When you invest in learning how to solve new problems, your ability to continue to solve the same problems of the past will inevitably falter.
Sometimes, there is a structural shift that disrupts your market and creates a shock to the system, requiring a pivot. If a global pandemic, a political upheaval, a regulatory change, or another technological disruption were to occur, for example, and your existing customer base was devastated, you would have some difficult questions to answer. Either you need to change the way in which your organization solves problems for your existing customers to help them survive and thrive, or your organization needs to change course and target a different market with its capabilities. Other times, a great opportunity might appear that justifies a pivot to maximize the generation of sustainable advocacy. The same structural upheaval might create a market for your products and services where one previously did not exist. It is the ability to see these structural shifts and to capitalize on them that enables great leadership teams to adjust their focus purposefully and create clarity in the face of chaos and uncertainty.
FOCUS VS. DIFFUSION
The pattern that shows up in successful organizations lies in the focus.
Great leadership teams make these shifts carefully and purposefully with their core advocacy base in mind. When they expand, they work to only expand with minimal impact on their historical core advocacy position while opening up opportunities for future advocates. They serve to expand the total number of advocates and the depth of advocacy that they are able to create through their expansion or through their shifts. Another pattern that this shows represents a problem that all business leaders share. Pareto’s law applies to an organization’s customer base in that twenty percent of the customers you have often cause eighty percent of the headaches and heartaches. The reason for this is that firms don’t have a concise understanding of the problems they solve in a way that matters to those they have turned into advocates. If they did, it would be obvious which customers should be avoided. If the team can figure out how to better message and avoid taking on more of the twenty percent of customers whose problems we can never seem to solve, the organization can become much more efficient. There will always be some of those customers that none of us want. We don’t want them because they don’t value the same things we do and we can’t seem to make them happy. We sometimes chase these customers because their money is green, and we think we can capture a lot of revenue. However, if the organization cannot turn these customers into advocates through its products and services, in time, our culture will be diluted and we will end up reducing our capacity for serving our core advocates and delivering on our strategy.
The better we know the people we serve and the problems we solve, the more empowering our vision will be. When our vision is paired with a motivated team, aligned on the same human-oriented goals, we have a complete strategy to steward that will help us maximize the number of advocates that our organizations create, together.
References and Further Reading:
Business is High Art — A Birds Eye View of Culture
Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christiansen
Ryan, R. M., Sheldon, K. M., Kasser, T., & Deci, E. L. (1996). All goals are not created equal: An organismic perspective on the nature of goals and their regulation. In P. M. Gollwitzer & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior (pp. 7–26). New York: Guilford Press.
The Handbook of Self Determination Theory (2004) by Ed Deci, Richard Ryan and Others