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Defining your Strategic Vision

May 27th, 2016



By James M. Kerr

We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. That’s why we form communities, follow sport teams or volunteer our time for the greater good. It is one of the reasons that we get up in the morning.

Another reason to get up in the morning is to go to work. Besides wanting to earn a living to provide for ourselves and families, our work gives us a similar sense of purpose and belonging. And as business leaders, we ought to be aware that creating exciting organisations that are substantially different from our competition will also help us attract and retain the best and brightest.

But it’s impossible to have a sense of purpose or belonging without being able to answer some simple questions about what it is we are doing and why. So, how does one marry these two aspirations? Why not begin by painting a vision?

I’m not suggesting coming up with the sort of tired clichés that appear on some company web sites or printed on posters no-one reads – you know the sort of thing: “We are passionate about understanding and responding to customer needs. We provide authoritative information and technology-based solutions across key stages of our customers’ workflow….”

These sorts of platitudes could apply to any company within their industry. This is why I advise my clients to craft a “Vision Story” – something with depth, something so compelling and vivid that the people are genuinely enthused about being part of it. Here is where to begin.

Constructing a Vision Story
Above all else, a vision story must be engaging. People must be able to identify with what is being proffered within the story. They need to be able to see themselves working at that company. Futuristic in its tone and loose and sinuous in its organisation, a vision story is written as if the company has already completed the work needed to achieve its vision. Typically, 15 – 20 pages in length, the story must be a vast and detailed discussion of what a company is to become in order to achieve its long-term goals.

How do you begin? It starts by imagining the possibilities. As I work with my clients on visioning, I start with a very basic question: “What can this company become?”

Inevitably, the initial answers outline financial goals, like, “we will turn over £20m by 2017,” or “we will operate at a 40% margin by 2018”, and so on.

It’s a great start! Let a strong statement of the financial goal frame the vision story. People want to know the size of company that they will be part of down-the-road. It will serve to inform their commitment because it’s important to people to identify with the size and goals of the firms for which they work.

But, the financial goal is just the beginning of the story. The rest of the tale must include details about the company, including such characteristics as:

Management Style Leadership Models
Customer Demographics Product/Service Sets
Growth Strategies Product Distribution
Service Delivery New Business Partnerships
Brand Value Organisational Structure
Operating Model Process Transformation
Flexible Workforce Performance Metrics
Diversity & Inclusion Governance Frameworks

This is not to say that the vision story specifies what each of these characteristics is for the company. Each of the subjects on the list must be further refined and developed over the course of time that transpires between where an organisation is today and where it wants to be in the future.

The vision story simply articulates the characteristics of the firm when it has achieved its vision. To state it another way, the vision story contains a discussion about how each of the elements outlined above have been instituted and now encompass the very fabric of the enterprise.

For example, the following passage from an actual vision story was used to describe the “Flexible Workforce” topic:

“By fostering an open and honest relationship with staff, a responsive, flexible workforce is in place. Effective cross-training and education programs have been put in place, as well. This allows the company to respond rapidly to workflow peaks and valleys….Training efforts have broadened their focus from job-specific development to one where overall process knowledge, interpersonal skills, leadership development, methodology practices, management skills, and succession planning are provided.”

Notice there is little here about how the workforce flexibility was achieved, anything about specific training plans or how demand and capacity are managed. Instead, the passage purely states that the company now has these attributes.

As mentioned above, it takes about 15 – 20 pages to properly construct a vision story that gives adequate coverage to all the areas you need to address. And it also takes time for people to digest the document – it’s not something that can be rushed. Instead, encourage everyone to get in the right frame of mind, remove unnecessary distractions and take their time to consume the message carefully.

Getting the Story Out
The work has just begun once the vision story is published. Once it has been defined, time must be dedicated to raising awareness of its content among everyone affected by it. Moreover, the best organisations stick to their vision and don’t let their stories collect dust. Rather, they continuously review it and listen to feedback so that it accurately reflects where the organisation is within its business environment.

Together with a solid Strategic Planning Program, the resulting vision story becomes an important management tool that guides action and informs decision-making within these enterprises – it creates a platform on which an enterprise thrives.

Successful enterprises of the future will be characterised by agile organisational structures, enhanced product and service delivery models and unmatched market reach. A vision story acts as a strategic platform from achieve these goals. That’s why businesses that take care to clearly articulate where they will be in the future and how they will get there will be more successful than ones that don’t.

James Kerr ThumbnailJames M. Kerr is the Global Chair of the Culture Transformation Practice at N2Growth and the author of The Executive Checklist. A specialist in organizational design and cultural transformation, he has been helping clients re-imagine the way work is organized and performed for more than 25 years. His next book is due out later in 2016 and focuses on leadership and strategy-setting.


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