In the early 1980s, when we did the original research for Managing for Excellence, few people were talking about vision in organizations, and we groped for words to describe it, eventually settling on the awkward term “overarching goals.”1 Only a dozen years later, almost everyone has grown cynical about vision and is sick of hearing about it.2 Telling a group of managers that they are about to embark on a vision-building retreat is a sure way to induce eyerolling and wisecracks about “the vision thing.”
Despite the power of vision to transform commitment and performance, it has meant little more than empty slogans for most managers. They have wasted valuable time formulating vision statements that were never embedded in practice. In other cases, visions were clear to people at the top but meaningless phraseology to the people below. Or statements were too often about relationships and not about the work that defined the organization.
Nevertheless, we have come to praise vision, not to bury it. As much as it is scorned, it is critical to success today. A recent worldwide survey of 2,664 upper-level line managers indicated that they ranked “actualizing a tangible vision” as their highest need for effective leadership. ”3 They also reported that they were not very skilled at doing it, which may account for some of the skepticism.
Another problem ...