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Using Vision as a Management Tool

We hear often that we live in a global business environment one that is more volatile and uncertain than ever. Even non-business entities like militaries are facing similarly complex environments due to asymmetric warfare, conflicts between unevenly matched opponents whose strategy and/or tactics differ significantly.

One valuable management tool useful in particularly dynamic environments is vision. The word vision is used broadly to mean many different things, and is often listed as a general attribute of "great leaders." But vision as a management tool is more concrete. It is a way to effectively implement strategy by clearly envisioning success, and articulating that vision to help others retain focus and direction.

For example, in implementing its "One Ford" strategy to position Ford as a maker of small cars and creating efficiencies that would allow it to do so profitably, company executives have effectively used vision to show the way. First, they consistently hammered home and reinforced what things must look like in the future. For instance, the goal of the One Ford strategy is to make product development (new car designs) have global reach; that is, a car developed in one region would be sold in most if not all global markets. Executives have consistently painted the picture of what a One Ford world looks like. As Ford has gained traction, workers at Ford "see" a brighter future as 87% report that they "believe the company is on the right track."1

As a manager, it behooves you to create a vision of a future where the common aims are being achieved. This requires thinking and experimenting. First, think through the consequences being sought and create a clear picture of what these are. They should not be vague or abstract. Second, try to visualize the journey toward achieving those consequences. Articulate the vision of this journey and destination as succinctly as possible. Make it clear to yourself, but then test it to make sure it is clear to others.

Once you have created a vision (this can be specific to a project, department, business unit or company), you will likely have to share it at some point to align people to the larger aims. For example, at certain points over the last three years, some old-line Ford managers became lost to the larger aims, such as the One Ford concept. Likely, they felt unsure, maybe incompetent, about this future state. Company executives, led by President Alan Mulally, have likely shared the vision to help these managers understand how actions like eliminating some brands, regionalizing engineering, and focusing more on small cars align with the new Ford strategy. When sharing the vision, managers can talk about three things:

  • Connect people's efforts to the ultimate aims. People will focus on work outcomes (as they should be), but it is easy for them to lose the connection to the larger consequences those outcomes support. The bricklayer concentrating on the wall he is building may not see the relevance of his contribution to the end goal of a large building complex or elegant cathedral. When people get lost, share the vision.

  • Implementing new plans often requires people to master new things. Talk about how this learning will create success and how this success will be felt and experienced. This can help them overcome the burden of taking on the unknown.

  • Achieving significant common ends will change things. Talk about how things will be different and better because of these achievements. Often, people can't see or understand this on their own, but since you have thought about it and see the whole picture, you can help them see it, too.
In the late 1990s, Apple was on the precipice of becoming irrelevant, but since then the company has launched a series of very successful products. In order to so successfully implement its strategy of providing hardware with the ultimate "cool" factor, Apple executives created a clear, concrete vision of a company that transcends computers. Says Steve Jobs, "There's a very strong DNA within Apple, and that's about taking state-of-the-art technology and making it easy for [busy] people...who don't want to read manuals."2 Is there any doubt that personnel from product designers to staff in the Apple stores have at least a tacit understanding of this vision articulated so succinctly by Jobs?

Even dedicated, committed people can get lost; this is not unusual as they focus on the outcomes of their work. Vision can be a powerful tool for helping people get unstuck, but the manager must create it and be able to share it effectively. You must think through the opportunity, the barriers, and future successes, then figure out a succinct way to share your vision with others when they need to see it as well.


1By Paul Ingrassia, "Ford's Renaissance Man," The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 27, 2010.

2By Bobbie Johnson, "The Coolest Player in Town," guardian.co.uk, Sept. 22, 2005. (www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2005/sep/22/stevejobs.guardianweeklytechnology section)

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