One definition I found online for the word “vision” is “the ability to think about and plan for the future, using intelligence and imagination.” My immediate reaction is that vision implies much more than thinking about the future. For example, when we talk about weak managers, we often say they lack vision. Some say that good managers have “true vision.” In my opinion, the word “vision” is one that shouldn’t be modified. It’s an absolute word, and an individual either has vision or not. It should never be qualified. In much the same way, it’s like the word “unique.” Something is unique or it is not. It can’t be truly or quite unique.
That being said, let’s look at what vision is really all about. It is the ability to see ahead into the future and have the ability to...
1) foresee the good and the bad; and
2) know what to do about change for the better or worse.
People who are said to have a vision of where an organization is going are said to be “visionaries.” They are good planners and forecasters of events that can have an effect on an organization. They not only are good “predictors” but they also have the capability to see where the organization can and should go when good or bad possibilities occur.
How do they do this? First of all, they do the basic research needed to know the environment that the organization is a part of. They learn everything they can about competitors, trends, the past and what “experts” are predicting. More importantly, they learn how good (or bad) those experts have been based on percentages of successful predictions. In short, they learn whom they can rely on when planning for the future success of the organization. Yes, to be a visionary requires a lot of investigation and the help of good, reliable people. Trying to do it alone is next to impossible.
And another thing: vision statements! I have seen hundreds of vision statements in my 40-plus years of being a businessman and a graduate school professor for over 20 years. Most of them are just plain awful. Many of them are more like mission statements. My favorite definition of a mission statement comes from the MacMillan dictionary. It is “a short official statement that an organization makes about the work that it does and why it does it.” Sweet and simple. Too many mission statements are restatements of their vision statements. In brief, a mission statement focuses on “what it does and why” and a vision statement focuses on “what will happen.” How different can they be?
In looking at TopNonprofits.com, I came upon examples of the top 50 mission statements for nonprofits. Here are the top five:
Smithsonian: The increase and diffusion of knowledge. (6 words)
USO: Lifts the spirits of America’s troops and their families. (9 words)
Livestrong: To inspire and empower people affected by cancer. (8)
Invisible Children: To bring a permanent end to LRA atrocities. (8)
The Humane Society: Celebrating Animals, Confronting Cruelty. (4)
They are succinct and all-informative, creating positive reactions in each case with the fewest words possible. Now, maybe it will be clearer to those who confuse mission statements with vision statements.
In sum, perhaps the confusion results from over-thinking on the part of those who wrote them. Regardless, vision requires a lot of thinking, people, knowledge of the past, present and insight as to what the future holds in store for an organization.
Written by: Dr. Walter Guarino, Partner at Practicomm LLC