No company ever became visionary through a vision statement!

by Didier Marlier on Friday June 5th, 2015

Built to last, the book from Stanford professors James Collins and Jerry Porras has been a revelation for millions of students, academics and executives, since its publication in 1994. It has since lost a part of its credibility (see this article in Fast Company), as many of the companies it described as sustainable (built to last) seem to have met tremendous difficulties in the Disruption Era. Nevertheless, if one may criticize (rightly so) the choice of companies, supposed to represent “built to last”, I respect the twelve challenges or provocations (called myths) they propose, as they make a lot of sense in the Disruption Economy:

  • Myth No 1 “It takes a great idea to start a great company”
  • Myth No 2 “Visionary companies require great and charismatic visionary leaders”
  • Myth No 3 “The most successful companies exist first and foremost to maximize profits”
  • Myth No 4 “Visionary companies share a common subset of “correct” core values”
  • Myth No 5 “The only constant is change”
  • Myth No 6 “Blue-chip companies play it safe”
  • Myth No 7 “Visionary companies are great places to work, for everyone”
  • Myth No 8 “Highly successful companies make their best moves by brilliant and complex strategic planning”
  • Myth No 9 “Companies should hire outside CEOs to stimulate fundamental change”
  • Myth No 10 “The most successful companies focus primarily on beating the competition”
  • Myth No 11 “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”
  • Myth No 12 “Companies become visionary primarily through “vision statements”

I would like to comment on Myth No 12. I have been resisting to come up with a value statement and a vision statement for long. I have always been deeply ill at ease with such tools that resemble more to a “communication exercise” than to an authentic engagement process. Put simply, when looking at it in some client companies, it seemed that a small team had been put in charge of finding some magic words that could be used in the company’s internal and external communication. It appeared that their job and the mission of the Management Board would be over, once the posters would be pinned on the walls of every and each possible office… This is such a waste of time and money and such a missed opportunity that I always refused to go down that route for our team.

This week though, one of us came with a proposal for values and behaviours that should lead our thoughts and actions in order to better integrate new colleagues that we invited to be part of our organization:

  • Being aware that we are seen at all times as a role model for a high performance team. The consistent demonstration of team focused behaviours by everyone makes our role much easier, and more enjoyable, and also has a real impact on our clients
  • All of us should be willing and allowed to follow as well as a lead
  • Feedback: Creating a learning environment is a fundamental aspect of our culture. Feedback is a gift and it has to be crafted, and delivered, in a high support/high challenge way:
    • Reinforcing feedback to help people become more conscious of their talents and what makes a difference to our clients
    • Constructive feedback with a clear suggestion to what someone could do differently
  • Courage: Our work is with senior executives working in demanding organisational cultures. It may require the courage to take a strong position and challenge individual behaviours or organisational practices. It is also about having the courage to have honest conversations within the team and to speak up in team reviews.
  • Generosity: Generosity as a behaviour. Within the team, it is also about creating the conditions for each of us to do and be their best.
  • Valuing diversity: This is about being open, curious and building on different characters, cultures and experiences. We need to maintain a shared and core set of beliefs, and also to be able to adapt and respect different ways of doing things.

Is this perfect? No. Is this the “magic formula”? This is not the point. What this “Behavioural/Cognitive values statement” will do for us, is to provoke reflections and discussions. It will demand that we give feedback to each other on these. We will engage into conversations with each other about the different ways we have to understand and live “Courage” or “Generosity” for example.

The main merit of a values, vision, mission, innovation statement is not to be beautifully crafted in a wonderful poster on the wall. It is not the end of a journey. It should be the start of a journey towards ambition. It should be a point of convergence, an Agora, where people may discuss, share their surprise, be curious at how others interpretate and live it.

The Enablers Network lived for almost 20 years without any of these statements. I saw them as an unauthentic claim. Now that I have seen the light and understood that they can be the beginning of a rich dialogue and change process, I will encourage us not to have one but use one!

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