Each Monday I post the next section of my 2001 book, which was originally called (by the publisher) Hoover’s Vision but which I have now retitled The Art of Enterprise. I have posted over half of it already; click on the “Monday” column to see all the prior sections. The entire book can be downloaded as a PDF for $10 at http://www.scribd.com/doc/25085990/The-Art-of-Enterprise-by-Gary-Hoover-January-2010
The Power of Vision
I began this book by saying that the single most critical ingredient of enterprise success is having a clear vision. Since then, we’ve covered the foundation that must first be put in place – creative curiosity and an understanding of where you stand in time and space, of how the world is changing around you. With that foundation in place, we can now build our vision. In the following pages, we will answer three questions:
1. What is vision?
2. Why is vision important?
3. What are the characteristics of a successful vision?
What is vision?
When I say vision, I mean an informed and forward-thinking statement of purpose.
Above all else, the vision tells us why the enterprise exists, its raison d’etre. An enterprise without a clear purpose is a ship without a rudder, a train without a track. The vision answers the question, Just what are we trying to accomplish? In a few pages, we’ll discuss how to think about purpose in order to achieve success.
Next, a vision should be informed. The better you understand the world, the better informed your vision will be. An informed vision will reflect the trends at work in your environment. If your vision is to build and sell the world’s greatest slide rules, you are probably not going to attract many customers. If your goal is to improve the lives of smallpox victims, you are soon going to be out of business – thankfully. On the other hand, you might today start a magazine focused on people aged 80 and above with the knowledge that the market may “grow into” your business in coming years.
Hand-in-hand with being informed comes “forward-thinking.” Your vision is not intended to reflect whatever flaws your enterprise may have today. Instead, your vision should reflect what you expect and hope your organization will become. Your vision is by definition a statement of ambition.
A forward-looking statement of purpose informs everyone of the direction the enterprise is moving. Sometimes you move quickly, sometimes slowly, and sometimes even backwards a step or two. But the clear vision always lets everyone know what direction you want to be moving in. All priorities flow from a clear vision.
There’s no standard “vision formula” that works for everyone. I’ve read books offering collections of “top company mission statements,” and many of them strike me as meaningless words that do not inform the actual conduct of the enterprise but rather reflect generic aspirations to which almost anyone could subscribe.
Instead, a vision should be a highly customized vision that could only come from your enterprise. Uniqueness and differentiation are crucial to a great vision.
Whether it’s written or not, whether it’s spoken or not, there is a heart and soul within every organization. If you run an enterprise today, ask your employees and their spouses, ask customers, even ask competitors, “What adjectives and phrases would you use to describe us?” Maybe you will hear phrases like slow to respond, trapped in the dark ages, work their people too hard, always reaching for new business, a lot of fun, all business, great at designing products. Some of the things you will hear may be flattering, others not so pretty. Some things will surprise you, others will not. But every enterprise has such a personality. And inevitably the vision of an enterprise reflects its personality.
I recently met Phil Romano, one of the most creative restaurant entrepreneurs. He dreamed up Fuddrucker’s, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, and Eatzi’s. Phil was speaking to a meeting of young restaurateurs, many of whom had one successful location and were looking to expand. Someone asked Phil, “When it’s time to expand, how do you know what is most important in designing and opening your second unit?”
Phil replied, “Look at your restaurant and list those two, three, or four things that, if you changed them, it really wouldn’t be the same restaurant or the same experience.” Phil went on to describe the many restaurants that had developed enviable reputations, with crowded waiting areas and never enough tables. Often, when those restaurants expanded to meet the demand, they failed. It turned out that their cozy crowdedness was one of the hallmarks that made them great.
Phil noted that, for one restaurant, it might be the décor, for another the menu, for another the attitude of the wait staff, for another the speed of service. But each successful restaurant has something that makes it successful, that sets it apart from its many competitors. That something special is at the heart ofits vision.
A great vision reflects your “core values” in the very broadest sense of the word. At Hewlett Packard, it might be to design the strongest, most durable computer hardware products. At Southwest Airlines, it is to fly reliably, efficiently, and to have fun. At Hoover’s, we seek to provide readable, accurate, timely information on companies, industries, and managers. If you study successful enterprises, you always find that they have a “story,” an essence. When I first read about the Cross Pen Company many years ago, the article described the company as not competing with Bic and Papermate for the ballpoint writing instrument business, but competing with briefcases and paperweights for the corporate gift business. Whether Cross wrote this down in fancy mission statements or not, their company had a real story, a distinct message that defined the enterprise and set it apart. Every great enterprise has such a message.
Depending on your enterprise and its environment, your vision may or may not include references to customers, suppliers, stockholders, employees, or communities. It may or may not include references to technologies and approaches to the business. It will probably include references to values or business principles. If your company exists in an industry known for dishonesty (used car sales, for example), you may go out of your way to talk about ethical principles. But above all else your vision must reflect what is unique about your enterprise, its personality and attitude. It will reflect what you believe is most important, why you believe the enterprise exists.
Most important, a vision defines those things that do not change with the vagaries of the marketplace, that do not shift in response to competition, that do not bend with the fads of the hour. When we developed a vision for the first travel superstore, TravelFest, we knew that our stores would carry one of the largest selections of travel books in the US. But our vision did not say this. It said we would carry the best selection of travel information. We stated it that way because we knew that, in the future, people might be using electronic information sources much more often than books.
Too often, we confuse our tactics with our underlying strategy. What is at the core of General Motors? Is it making cars, or is it making vehicles for transportation? Would GM be comfortable if society went 100% trucks? Are our giant retail chains locked into running traditional stores of bricks and mortar, or are they distributors of merchandise that can just as easily move to the Internet and mail order? Don’t misunderstand me – I think that some retailers should answer this question, “We are absolutely built around traditional stores, and we will always be,” while others should say, “We are ready to sell goods by any channel of distribution that works.” Both can be successful if their vision is based on a sound understanding of people’s needs, if they believe in what they are doing, and if they execute it well. If I ran a supermarket chain, I might be open to entering the restaurant business but feel no need for ecommerce other than as an advertising and customer loyalty tool. On the other hand, if I ran a bookstore chain I might view the importance of Internet sales quite differently.
The ultimate purpose of the enterprise transcends the ups and downs of the marketplace, the vagaries of supply and demand, the entry and exit of competitors, the passing of the seasons. Only by looking into the soul of the enterprise can you define the transcendent core of the enterprise and differentiate that unchanging essence from the many tactics used in execution of the vision. Your customers, your competitors, your suppliers change by the year, by the month, by the week. The advertising medium that works one day could be irrelevant tomorrow. Your store location strategy – downtowns versus malls – may need to change. The size, style, shape, and design of your products may change. Whether Hoover’s distributes its information in the form of books or CD-ROMs, via the Internet, or via some post-Internet technology will change. A vision that is created with foresight transcends those tactics and techniques that not only might change, but often must change.
Why is vision important?
Some ask, why is vision important? They may say, “I have been leading an enterprise without a vision, and we have done pretty well.”
My response is to ask, “But can your enterprise really stand the test of time? If you get hit by a truck today, will the enterprise go on tomorrow?” If the answer is “Yes– everyone around here understands what is important and knows our priorities,” then I would say, “Then you do have a vision – you just haven’t written it down and made the most of it.” But if you have no vision, if you really are running your enterprise with no clear definition or sense of purpose, you are treading on thin ice.
As I have observed thousands of business people, and studied thousands more, one of the characteristics you see over and over is their pragmatism. They look at the real world in which they live, they adapt, and they try to achieve. But the “flip side” of this personality trait is often that these same business people are not overly introspective. They do not dwell on why they do what they do or how they got where they got. Just as the “flip side” of great philosophy professors is that they sometimes forget where they left their shoes. But those who both do things and think about what they are doing are the ones who achieve the most. Whether you “do vision” consciously or not, here are the reasons that it is so required, the reasons it is so useful in achieving your organization’s goals:
A vision bonds. The larger your enterprise is, the more likely you will have workers from diverse backgrounds. The more you grow, the more you will include different ages, races, religions, backgrounds, and mindsets. If you grow enough, you will even include many nationalities. The vision, the purpose of the enterprise, is ultimately the only reason that all these people come together each day. At the companies I led, when different viewpoints clashed, I would point out that we were all here to accomplish our shared goals, that we were going the change the world, and that only if we got along with diverse others could we accomplish those goals. This was a far more effective tool for bringing people together than just begging them, or (worse yet) ordering them to get along or get out. When bringing together people of diverse races, religions, ages, and lifestyles, you cannot overemphasize that “we are different, we all have a reason for being here at this enterprise, the only thing that brings us together at this workplace is because we share these values and this purpose.”
A vision inspires. As the world becomes wealthier, people have more career choices. Money becomes less important. While it would be foolish to think that money did not matter, jobs are increasingly at financial parity and other elements become the deciding factor – what are the options and other benefits, where is the job, what are the people like, what do they believe in?
Over time, the values and purpose of the organization have become more and more important, especially to the best people, the ones who can make the most difference in your enterprise. This trend will only grow in the future. In short, people are more motivated if they believe they are doing something that is worthwhile, if they believe that they can, through participation in the enterprise, accomplish something that is worthy of their time and energy. Something that they could not accomplish working on their own. Ideally, the vision of the enterprise is something they believed in before they even joined the organization. Whether that be finding cures for cancer or building great cars, operating exciting fashion stores or publishing a fine daily newspaper.
Nothing is a more powerful agent for attracting and keeping talented people than a clear vision, especially if the organization is living that vision and achieving its goals. A clear vision, a sense of purpose, can be a continual motivator and force of inspiration in even the largest of organizations. Perhaps especially in the largest organizations.
A vision is an anchor in hard times and times of change. It is what makes the difference between the flash in the pan and the enterprise that is going to last, to stand the test of time. Those organizations which understand themselves, which have a clear vision and are true to it, have far fewer doubts than an organization without such a rudder. People in a visionary organization can be spellbound by the future and oblivious to the obstacles of the present – or at least have the confidence and the will to overcome them.
A vision is a potent competitive tool. If your competitors have visions themselves, a differentiating vision is required on your part. However, it is often the case that your competitors are without a clear and consistent definition of themselves. If you are so lucky as to be in such a position, you can really make hay out of the weakness of others by being one of the few organizations in your field that knows where it is headed and why.
A vision builds community. Once you have articulated your vision and are confident in it, then it is important that it reach everyone who touches the enterprise. Too often, the vision is either only known at the Board level, or only distributed to employees but not to the Board. When we were building our startup companies, I made sure that every supplier – even our lawyers and bankers – knew what we were up to and where we were headed, that every stockholder “bought into” our vision of the business, and that our customers knew what was important to us. And of course we tried to make sure all employees and our Board were “on board” before they joined us. If your story is true, if you really believe in it, then you must use it as the powerful tool that it is, a pervasive tool for inspiration, for longevity, and for unification of everyone involved in the enterprise. A great vision turns your enterprise’s acquaintances into advocates.
What are the characteristics of a successful vision?
I believe that there are four primary attributes in successful enterprise visions. I have studied a lot of companies and non-profit organizations. I have seen some succeed with only three of these in place, occasionally with just two. But the great enterprises have visions that are all four:
¨ Unique, and
I call these four dimensions the four pillars of vision. I will touch on each of these in the next four sections of the book.