Erica Olsen, Co-Founder and COO of OnStrategy, explains how to write a vision statement that inspires. A vision statement answers the question where. It explains where your organization is headed and acts like a north star guiding everyone in your organization to the same place.
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“Hi. My name is Erica Olsen. Today’s white board session is on vision statements. What is a vision statement? A vision statement answers the question where and explains where your organization is headed, like your north star. Some great characteristics of a vision statement, what are they? Well, they’re future casting. A mark of a good vision statement has a gerund verb, so that’s those verbs that end in -ing, so will be or creating, whatever the case may be, future casting. It’s looking forward. It’s clear and visible. Well, we always like our statements to be clear but visible. If you can’t actually see yourself on the top of this mountain, for example, the vision being on top of a mountain as a metaphor, you can’t see yourself there then it’s not clear enough and not visible enough, and if you can’t see your vision your team can’t see your vision either.
It needs to be audacious. Think big. Let’s go big. What can you actually accomplish with your organization? It needs to be descriptive, I already mentioned that once. One way to get there is to have a vision statement that is a single sentence and then have what’s called a vision description which actually has all the descriptive stuff in it and you can just go on from bullet point to bullet point. The other thing is, I think time frame is pretty helpful so have a vision statement that’s five years in nature. Some people think longer, that’s fine but pick a time. Let’s say five years, ten years, but pick a time at least five years out from there. Those things make a great vision statement. What is a vision statement not? Well, let me give you a diagram. If we’re looking at where we are now as Point A and where we want to be as Point B, and how we’re going to get there is the space in between. Point A, today. Point B, that vision statement, right? That place you want to be, and your mission is the box around those two. Okay, so don’t confuse mission and vision. People do that a lot. It’s really important.
A mission explains why you exist as an organization. A vision explains where you’re going. A big problem is if your vision is outside your mission, they’re not going to connect. Let’s look at an example. Here’s a great example. Love this one. This is the Coleman Organization, the women’s organization that’s working on curing breast cancer, and their five year, actually I think it’s a ten year vision is, “to cure the world of breast cancer”. Super succinct, really clear, very clear outcome, which brings me to a point of there are basically three types of vision statements. The first one is what I like to say, quantitative in nature, so a numeric value. This one’s pretty quantitative in nature. It’s a very specific, the world, the entire world of breast cancer. Sometimes we see vision statements, “I want to generate $10 million, $100 million in sales.” The other option is competitive. Sometimes if we want to out beat maybe one of your big competitors. And we often always see the third one, which is a superlative, such as number one or the best. Okay.
Again, if you’re trying to put your vision statement together, think about making sure we’ve got that verb, that future looking verb as well as are we trying to do a quant-type vision statement or are we trying to do a superlative, or a sort of the best and number one type vision statement. Let’s talk about how to. How do you put a vision statement together? Well, I think putting vision statements together is one of the best things when you’re looking at strategy. People, who’s involved? I would say anybody on your staff that you can bring together. And you know why? Because sometimes creating the vision statement is not just about the end item or the end sentence, but it’s also about getting people engaged in the process, which is just great. I’d say you’re whole staff if you can swing it.
The process that I like to use is what I call, and this is a hint, the Cover Story Vision. Okay, so put everybody in a room, set it up correctly so people are at tables. Okay, so working in groups of maybe three, four, no more than five. If it’s too big it’s not going to work, okay. Get people in the mind set of thinking five years from now what’s the world going to be like and you really need to think about that. Once we have, and you can brain storm with everybody, once you have that idea, break into small groups and say, “Okay. Let’s assume that we as an organization are on the cover of some big, national magazine.” You got to pick the magazine. Ask them to pick the magazine, “What’s the cover story? What’s the headline? What’s the description? What are the pictures? What are people saying about us?” And ask your team to kind of brain storm and go nuts on a big, you know, white board such as this one. Come back together and synthesize those ideas. You’ll get great, great stuff back. And you can use that information then to cull it down to come up with that vision statement, sentence that you’re looking for. Put everything else in that vision description that I mentioned.
Let’s talk about perspective. What do you need? You need a long term perspective. Let’s make sure that the folks that are on your team can actually think big. We need to think big, we need to think long term, we actually need to be able to see that five or ten year time horizon. My last tip is, no mountaineer climbing because when you get to the top of it, you want make sure you’re on the right mountain.”