Inspiring a Compelling Vision

There’s a story I like to tell to communicate the value of having a clear and articulated vision in a company. I ask my audience to imagine they’re in a contest to complete a jigsaw puzzle. There are two teams, A and B, and three rounds to the contest.

In the first round, Team A is given the puzzle pieces and the correct cover. Team B is given the same puzzle pieces but the cover to another puzzle. The audience is asked to guess which team will complete the puzzle first. Team A is the chosen winner. In the second round, Team A is given the correct cover and Team B is given no cover at all. Again the audience identifies Team A as the fastest to complete the puzzle. Finally, in the third round, Team A again gets the correct cover and each member of Team B receives a different cover. Again, Team A is predicted to be the fastest. Then I ask the audience, which version of the puzzle game most closely resembles their company. Invariably, the common response is the third; everyone has a different cover to the puzzle.

Unfortunately, this is an all too common situation. Strategies fail or struggle because companies either don’t develop a compelling vision of what they aim to accomplish, or they fail to properly communicate the vision in a clear and consistent manner insuring that everyone is pulling together for the same outcome.

Employees by nature want to engage to make a difference. But it’s hard to experience intrinsic motivation when they don’t know where they’re going and how their effort contributes to a bigger purpose, the completion of the correct puzzle. Not only is the energy and motivation reduced, energy is being dissipated in different directions much like puzzle players arguing over the pieces they believe are part of their cover.

There are three important steps to having an organization embrace and pursue the leader’s vision.

1. Clarify the vision – some leaders don’t know themselves what their picture actually looks like. Nothing extraordinary ever happened without a leader articulating a simple and clear vision. Neil Armstrong would never have made space history in 1969 had John F. Kennedy not planted into the mind of every American the vision of a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The vision was so memorable that those of us who grew up at that time still recall it today. What vision of your organization will your employees remember long after they’re gone?

2. Make it compelling – No one has ever thrown themselves into a vision of growing sales by 10 percent or cutting expenses. That’s not a vision; it’s a goal or outcome. It’s also not inspiring unless there’s a personal connection for the individual. For someone to get behind your vision it has to become their vision. Employees will pour themselves into a compelling opportunity not because they have to, but because they want to. When they do they are following the leader for their own desire to participate in the vision. Rationing in the US during World War II was a major inconvenience for our country but companies and individuals alike willingly sacrificed in ways almost unimaginable today in their contribution to the war effort. What about your vision would move your employees to sacrifice for your cause as Americans did during the war?

3. Repeat the story often – Once, or even a few times, is never enough. Repetition matters in a big way. Hearing something occasionally reinforces with the follower that they’re hearing the leader’s vision. But hearing it often will eventually make it their vision. When it becomes their vision everything they do will be aimed at achieving it. To do that, employees need to hear it often, in different situations and from different individuals. When they start telling your story as if it were their story, you’re on your way to achieving your vision.

“Make the story big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” These are the words of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (205). While his purpose was nefarious and destructive, the basic principle applies equally well to organizations seeking to fulfill their vision. A vision that benefits everyone is one most people can aspire to and support. The process is simple but success rests in the execution.

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