Most senior leaders know that every strategic plan needs to include the classic threesome – Vision, Mission (or our preferred term, Purpose), and Values. Yet, creating a winning trio is easier said than done. Vision statements often lack “oomph” and sometimes get confused with mission/purpose statements. Values get diluted. The result is blurry vision. The bad news is that organizational blurry vision is all too common and it’s costly. The exciting news is there’s a cure!

As a recovering academic, I confess, there’s something about a well-designed study that makes my inner nerd smile. But I get the best buzz from a rigorous study with real-world relevance. Something that helps my clients understand why it’s worth spending the time and effort to get it right. There’s just such a gem in the Academy of Management Journal.  A (Blurry) Vision of the Future: How Leader Rhetoric About Ultimate Goals Influences Performance reveals a specific Vision-Purpose-Values elixir used by companies that outperformed their rivals (Carton, Murphy and Clark, 2012). Turns out vision, purpose, and values interact in a powerful way. If one of the elements is poorly prepared or missing, the other elements are diminished, and potential synergy is lost. This comes as no real surprise to me and my team, yet it is gratifying to see the science that supports what we are doing in the field!

Carton and colleagues’ research shows that vision statements containing large amounts of visual imagery combined with four or fewer value statements distinguish the organizations where employees had a clear and aligned sense of the organization’s purpose, agreement on goals, greater coordination on execution, and higher performance on key metrics. In contrast, blurry visions, goal confusion, and disappointing metrics occurred in organizations with conceptual instead of image-based words in the vision statement and more than four core values. A small number of values contributes to a strong culture, whereas too many dilute and even confuse the message about what’s important. A related problem is when a purpose statement is mislabeled “vision statement” yet contains no aspirational, future-oriented, or image-based wording.

Our clients often struggle with the aspiration aspect of a vision statement.  Part of the problem perhaps resides in the term itself. Overused language tends to dilute and lose its power. For this reason, we use a different language to get at an inspiring vision—BHAG. First making an appearance in Good to Great by Jim Collins a few years ago, it stands for BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS GOAL.  That’s essentially what a vision is—the greatest and most inspiring goal you can imagine.

What we love about BHAG is that it leads to the discussion of things that are tangible.  It results in “we choose to go to the moon ” rather “develop a world-class space program.”  It’s “create the most compelling car company of the 21st century,” not “Be a top competitor in the electric car market.”

Other tools that can help you get specific and tangible:

  • Be courageous and bold. Paint vivid pictures that evoke physical and emotional sensations. Use words that describe vivid colors, sounds, and actions.
  • Dare to dream. Be futuristic and aspirational in your vision statement. Develop a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) to go along with it.
  • Keep your key messages clear. Your purpose Statement, Values, and your Vision Statements should each stand alone. Remember, your purpose statement is about why you exist today and the unique value you bring your customers; your vision statement is about what you aspire to become in the future.
  • Keep your list of values short – four or fewer — and aligned with the culture that will help you achieve the BHAG.

Unlike putting a man on the moon (and bringing them home safely) this is not rocket science. But it does require discipline and takes time to get it right.  If you are serious about a clear and aligned culture, breakthrough strategy, and flawless execution, the evidence says you need to take that time, apply discipline, and get this right.