Not too long ago the importance of establishing your Vision prior to developing your strategy was accepted practice. Increasingly however a school of thought is emerging which suggests that strategy does not require vision.

Far from being good advice, visionless strategy is a shortcut to…..destination unknown.

VisionlessThe purpose of Vision is to provide your strategy with direction. In the same way that you can better plan a car journey if you know the destination, so you can better plan your business strategy (or any other strategy) if you know where it is you intend to get to.

Good Vision is a bit more than that; good vision answers the question; ‘what does success look like?’ To continue the car journey analogy, vision might give you a destination of ‘London’ – okay for planning in general terms but a bit vague. Good vision would be more specific; ‘the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith W6 in time for a theatre show at 8.00pm.’

The problem with most businesses is that they simply do not understand strategy (McKinsey, 2011). This extends to the Vision which drives strategy too.

A couple of years ago I spoke at an event at which I was sharing the platform with Microsoft. The theme of my talk was creating good Vision. In preparing my talk I researched those I was sharing the platform with in the hope I could use them as good examples. Unfortunately, while researching Microsoft’s Vision I came across a great example of how not to do it!

I can hear you now; “hang on Jim, Microsoft. Are you sure? They are a pretty successful company!” Let me explain.

The Vision was; ‘A PC on every desk.’

Having found this poor example of Vision, rather than avoid it I phoned up my contact at Microsoft and explained what I had found and asked if they minded if I used it as an example of how not to do it. His reaction surprised me; he laughed. After he stopped laughing he invited me to go ahead before letting me know how relieved Microsoft were to have caught how bad that Vision was in time.

He explained; had Microsoft continued to blindly follow this Vision for much longer the smart phone, tablet, and mobile working tools revolution might have passed them by completely. Now, although they are playing catch up, at least they are in the game.

‘A PC on every desk’ was a Vision in the ‘destination London’ bracket. It gave a vague direction but failed to describe what success looked like and, worse, offered no deadline. To those peddling the idea of visionless strategy Microsoft’s poor ‘PC on every desk’ would be cited as evidence that Vision doesn’t work whereas the truth is that the Vision itself was poor.

Another reason for poor Vision, one I come across on an almost daily basis, is that of confusing Vision with Mission. Put very simply and in short, your Vision is where you are going, your Mission is why you exist. The two are often linked but not the same. The Girl Scouts used to cite their Vision as ‘help a girl reach her highest potential.’ This is a great example of an organisation mistaking what they do with where they are going; their Mission and their Vision. If applied properly as Vision, to drive strategy it is unlikely to prove successful. The visionless strategy peddlers will use this as an example of why vision doesn’t work, why it is unnecessary. The truth is that it is just poor vision.

The third group of visionless strategists have existed for far longer; they are that group who rather than figure direction prefer the idea of “just getting on with it.” They are easy to spot, they are often the people who seem permanently busy but generate little forward momentum other than by chance.

Their hero might even be Lao Tzu*; he who is mistakenly and frequently quoted as stating “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” (The more literal translation is, “a journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet”).

The ‘just get on with it’ brigade would start walking, literally taking the first step. However, more sensible first step might lie in first determining your destination. To return to the car journey analogy the person (business) who paused to first define what success looks like will arrive at the Lyric Theatre (and on time), those who just got on with it could well be……..….well……..…anywhere!

To put it in real terms, let’s say our Mission was to conquer space. What are our options when we come to our Vision?

  1. We don’t need a vision to give us direction, let’s just get on with it.
  2. “We are going to outer space.”
  3. “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 earth.” (John F Kennedy, 25th May 1961).

Whose Vision (or lack of) will give their strategy the sharper focus, the higher chance of success?

Who is your money on?


*To put Lao Tzu’s oft quoted words in perspective it should be noted he also said, “a good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Indeed Lao Tzu, although frequently quoted in business, was not a strategist but a philosopher and writer who marvelled in the journey of life. He should not be confused with Sun Tzu, the Godfather of everything we define as strategy today.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2012, 2016.

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