Badly-written corporate vision statements run rampant in the world and few know how to keep them from proliferating. Here’s how not to write a vision, and how to prepare you and your organization to develop a strong one.

A vision statement describes a better future – one that your organization can play a vital role in making real. It is an opportunity to clarify where you are going, define what makes you special, and invite your customers, partners, investors and employees to go with you on that journey.

How not to write a vision

Though well intentioned, many vision-creation efforts are set up for failure and result in a dry final product. Poorly constructed vision statements fail to inspire employees and risk continual modification to suit the strategy of the day. Why? Because the approaches many people use to generate vision statements sound good, but rarely deliver. Here are five tried and true ways to come up with a feeble vision statement. They may seem comical, but we’ve seen them used. Don’t do this:

  1. Mad-lib: Google ‘company vision,’ pick one that feels right, cross out the name of that company and write in your company’s name. Email it directly to the CEO with the subject line “New Company Vision.”
  2. Ballot box: Write seven possible vision statements on your own and send a poll to everyone in the company. The statement with the most votes wins.
  3. Sprint: Lock 20 employees in a room for one hour. Ask them to shout out words that should belong in the vision and link those words into sentences. Whatever is left on the whiteboard when they leave is the new vision.
  4. Blind outsource: Hire a consultant and tell them to write the vision for the company. Do not interact with the consultant for the duration of the project.
  5. Demo: Write a statement that describes the functionality of your product once the next five bugs are fixed.

The work of a vision

A vision is not about what you do right now (that’s a mission) or what you plan to achieve (that’s a goal). The vision is the umbrella concept above them all. An effective vision statement packs a punch in one or two sentences: it’s a bold expression and differentiated vision of the future, harmonious with company values, credible coming from your company, and relatable to employees, allowing them to see how they fit in with the company’s future.

Here are 3 company visions that communicate company values, passion, and direction:

Starbucks: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” 

REI: “We inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.”

Caterpillar: “Our vision is a world in which all people’s basic needs — such as shelter, clean water, sanitation, food and reliable power — are fulfilled in an environmentally sustainable way and a company that improves the quality of the environment and the communities where we live and work.”

Vision preparation recipe

Writing a vision requires the involvement of bold leaders who are willing to question assumptions, name the elephants in the room, and tackle perceived misalignment. The tactics that can produce a great vision also serve as a litmus test for your organization’s readiness for the effort. While specific steps might vary by company, here are the ingredients for a strong, long-standing vision.

1. Assemble your resources

These “know thyself” resources should be on hand before you begin creating or revising a company vision.

  • Company values: keep them in front of you during brainstorming and editing sessions.
  • Target audience: know exactly who you’re talking to. Hint: it isn’t “everyone.”
  • Time frame: many vision statements aim for 5-7 years because it is future-looking but not out of reach of our imaginations.
  • Stakeholders: identify the key people to involve throughout the process and take a collaborative approach so that all opinions are heard and understood.
  • Testing plan: how will you learn whether your vision does the job it’s supposed to do? Decide how and when to get feedback from employees and key clients. These are not voting moments but scheduled times to hear reflection that will fuel your edits.
  • Approver: commonly the CEO or head of the company. If not, make sure the approver has full autonomy to call the final vision done.
  • Due Date: choose a final deadline, even if it’s an arbitrary one. This can prevent endless iteration and define involvement for the approver leading up to that date. 

2. Dedicate time with the right people

While a vision should be relevant for everyone from the CEO to an intern, the company’s most senior leaders must guide its creation. Company executives have the perspective to ensure that the vision operates at the right altitude and inspires teams. This requires real time, especially if you engage outside consultants to help craft the words. Too many vision efforts stall out simply because teams try to pick away at it in 30-minute chunks.

When company leaders delegate the job to deputies whose work is focused on solving current product issues, visions don’t stick. Make the time.

3. Prepare for tough conversations

Productive vision discussions can reveal disagreements among leaders about the future of the company. If everyone agrees too readily, then the vision might be too broad, or executives might not be digging deep enough. A vision should force clear tradeoffs in work, products, and investments. Communicating this at the start will help the team prepare for these conversations and view them as a productive, necessary stage in the process.

4. Get messy before you erase a single idea

Vision brainstorming sessions can start with a review of past efforts and materials on hand and then quickly descend into “word salad” and frustration. This is okay. Get all of the terrible ideas on the board as fast as possible so you have items to cross off the list. As the team narrows in on the phrases that seem right, check against the criteria established. Is it bold? Will it agitate the company into action? Or did the team take the safe route to accommodate everyone’s ideas?

Outside help by third parties can facilitate the right dialogue and engagement from the beginning, and develop the resources you might be missing. Fresh ears are beneficial to test vision drafts against objective criteria and determine the necessary next steps.

Understanding the legwork involved in vision creation will help you and your leadership team decide if you have what you need to get started. The homework matters, and can help you avoid dull, uninspiring visions or stalled efforts. Once you’re ready, you’ll be on the path to a vision that can inspire, provoke, and tell the world why you’ll succeed.