There have been volumes of work published around the idea of vision, mission and values - the fundamental building blocks of any organization. The most influential of these are the works of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their seminal work - Built to Last and its prequel Good to Great. Over the years cynics and critics alike, have used the performance of some of the ‘star’ companies outlined in these books to question the relevance and the value of these concepts in today’s times. Regardless, these principles still hold weight today and a lot of leadership time is spent on the enquiry, articulation and communication of concepts like ‘vision and values’ in their organizations.
This article looks at some of the learning my colleagues and I have had while working with the leadership of various companies, in helping them evolve and articulate their vision and values. Since the frameworks used by many of these companies for articulating their ‘vision and values’ has been from Built to Last, I have used the same here as well. But this could apply to the idea of vision, mission, values and the process by which companies arrive at them in general.
A few years ago, one of India’s leading Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) players invited us to help them articulate their vision and values. In our internal brainstorming process, one of my colleagues made a startling assertion that all the work we had done with our clients thus far in evolving their vision and values haven’t been really effective. Over the next few days, we sat around rereflecting on what he said, and relooking at the work we had done with each of those clients. Some of the thoughts that I am sharing here have emerged from discussions with leaders and employees of the companies we consult with, as much as it has come from the outcome of these internal deliberations.
At the heart of the issue was the fact that, in most organizations despite all good intentions, concepts like vision and values are still entangled in the world of corporate bureaucracy. The method of arriving at them, the language employed, the emotional space from where it is created, and the politics involved in it, all make it seem more like a management practice, and a business imperative, rather than an act of passionate human endeavor.
There is a need to make the vision, and the process of arriving at it more human. Where these concepts have been created with emotional honesty, complemented by intellectual rigor, it has worked like magic.
Let's look at two important aspects in evolving a core purpose that is more human-centric.
1. Evoke the feelings first. Wordsmithing and Articulation comes later.
Built to Last principles had established the need for an organization to have a core purpose (the organization’s reason for existence beyond making money, something that is like a guiding star on the horizon – forever pursued but never reached). In our experience, arriving at the core purpose has become more of an exercise in thinking rather than feeling. An intellectual consensus- building event rather than an emotional journey into evoking a shared meaning and future. This is the stuff of workshops and breakouts, rather than the truth in open conversations and deep listening. The work done by Clotaire Rapaille (author of The Culture Code) has also helped us in some of these journeys. We were recently involved in facilitating a visioning exercise for a large Indian conglomerate that was entering the real estate business. A group of senior executives including the CEO and Presidents sat on the floor of a beautiful house overlooking a beach in what would pass as ‘more than casual’ attire. After a while of general ‘chit chat’, we got them to sit around in a circle, close their eyes and journey back into their past to evoke the earliest and the deepest memories of their childhood homes. As each person started to talk about the memory of their homes, with their eyes closed, powerful emotions were brought to the fore - some beautiful and magical, some poignant and sad. The honesty of the session, the rawness of the emotions, the vulnerability involved in the process, and the juxtaposition of those experiences with the cold and clinical way homes are built and sold today – more as an assortment of amenities packaged with superficial themes of nature, happiness etc. led to the creation of a powerful vision. One that was felt deeply first, and then articulated later. One that was birthed from shared experiences, rather than building alignment post facto. One that came from powerful human interactions as against abstract management tools and frameworks. The actual word-crafting of it happened weeks later. This is in direct contrast to routine workshops on visioning, where a lot of effort is put into articulation and ensuring that this articulated vision represents the worldviews of all the ‘people who hold positions of power or influence’. No wonder many of them feel more anti-septic and lackluster.
2. Core Purpose statement vs. Core Purpose
Most vision statements can virtually nag you with their length and their assortment of adjectives, an outcome of pleasing multiple stakeholders. A rare few are pithy and inspirational. All of them however claim to be honest. But that is far from the truth, and many of them risk being unintentionally dishonest. Where does that come from, and what can be done about it? The risk of being seen as dishonest comes from the inherent ‘larger than life’ feel that core purpose statements have. When a company communicates its purpose, without internalizing the relentlessness with which it will pursue the purpose, employees not only get cynical but also start attributing dishonesty to the vision.
Let’s take the case of a luggage manufacturing company, which articulated its core purpose as “make travel a joyful and liberating experience”. Apart from some minor innovations to their core product – luggage, it was pretty much business as usual. A long-time employee remarked in one of the meetings, “I don't think I have made anyone’s travel, a joyful and liberating experience and I have been here for a while. I don't think it is going to change dramatically either in the near future”. It was just a matter of time before the core purpose statement became just that – a mere core purpose statement. And maybe a little more – a dishonest core purpose statement.
The idea of abstracting a core purpose statement to a collective whole, rather than making it personal and human to everyone, is surely a way to see the dishonesty involved in the core purpose. We need to ask the question - Is this core purpose really our reason for existence? If it were so, how would we behave every day? What is important and what is expedient? Would it really hurt us emotionally if we did not make progress, even if we were successful in business terms?
To conclude, companies are collectives of human beings and visions are human endeavors. Distorting that with complicated management thinking, language and abstractions is a recipe to a Kafkaesque corporate world. The need to humanize how we evolve and articulate an organization’s vision is imperative and not just food for thought. Otherwise our vision and values become fodder for cynicism and lampooning by employees. Not the firm guiding lights that they were intended to be.