The Business Value of a Clear & Concise Vision

» Posted by Jeanne Meister  » Posted on 12.03.07

Published September 2004

Learning initiatives continue to expand in scope and importance, and the skills necessary to be successful increasingly involve the ability to manage an integrated learning department. That means that learning organizations should pay close attention to the lessons learned through the years by the more mature field of systems development. In fact, when Accenture conducted research into the top 10 success factors for large and complex systems development, the No. 1 factor was the creation and communication of a clear, well-defined vision articulated in ways that everyone could understand and buy into.

Behind the creation of a vision is one central issue: risk. As scope enlarges and as the horizon of delivery moves further out, risk also increases. One way to lessen (not eliminate) such risk, and to keep a long-term project on track and on budget, is a strong business vision of where you’re going, what needs to be implemented, how you will track implementation and how each part contributes to the whole.

A vision should be comprehensive, but you should also be able to articulate it in “bumper sticker” format. For example, Gillian Scholes, executive director of organization and leadership development for Ingersoll-Rand, tells the story of that company’s challenge when it was working to create a new, holistic entity from what had previously been a set of semi-independent businesses. The Ingersoll-Rand executive team created a vision of something they simply called “dual citizenship”: being a citizen of both the business unit and of the enterprise as a whole. That clear and concise statement became a central guiding principle for all Ingersoll-Rand employees. The power and simplicity of that overall vision helped Scholes and her team work more closely with the business to create Ingersoll-Rand University and its vision: “Learn, Link, Leverage.” The lesson: By keeping the vision simple (but not simplistic), one can be more successful at communicating it to employees, executives and managers.

Even executives who affirm the importance of a vision may fall prey to the “cobweb factor”: creating a vision and then putting it in some figurative drawer to gather dust. To be successful, the vision must be a living document. In complex systems projects, the best vision statements speak of the essential capabilities that the final system will provide to the company. They are integrated into the project training and displayed in all essential documents of the project. All projects within the larger program must be tied back to the vision and justified according to how they contributed to the realization of that vision.

A similar approach is being taken by Joanne Kincer, director of Halliburton University, who has defined the “guiding principles” of Halliburton University and communicated these to business leaders, employees and customers. Halliburton University in fact created six guiding principles, including: “So what?”–which forces people to focus on the impact of what they’re doing on the business–“Keep it simple,” “A promise is a promise,” “No pushing,” “Have fun, damn it!” and, my favorite, “80 percent baked.”

That latter principle is key to a needed change in the mindset of learning and development staff: a move away from a “big bang” mentality, where everything needs to be perfect and delivered all at the same time, and more toward iterations and phased releases. “Sometimes,” Kincer said, “organizations make the mistake of thinking that everything has to be developed to 100 percent before it’s released. But just think about those chocolate chip cookies that you pull out of the oven a little early, just when they’re gooey and yummy and even better than when they’re baked all the way through.” The message here, according to Kincer, is, “If there is some value that we can add quickly with a product or service, let’s go ahead and implement it and then worry about perfecting it while we’re already creating value.”

But the real test of all visions lies in execution. Visions that cannot be executed are only slogans. As Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan explain in their book, “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done,” “Execution is the missing link between aspirations and results.”

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