How to align business vision with strategies and goals?
Up until about half a decade or so ago, most company websites followed an almost identical design pattern i.e. on the top you would find a menu which would almost always contain a page (usually titled ‘About us’) which would display the company’s vision, mission & values. You probably have also noticed that this has almost disappeared especially in the case of smaller businesses. The purpose of touching on the subject is not to discuss the virtues of following one website design and content pattern over the other. Nor by any means, I am an expert on such subjects. What I want to highlight is the increasing perception of redundancy of terms such as vision & mission within the smaller and mid-size businesses. Website design trends are simply indicative of this perception.
The problem partly lies with the inability to properly define the mission and partly with the inability to effectively cascade this mission down to different levels of organisational functions. Hence the failure to achieve what I would like to call ‘an aligned organisation’.
Let us try and explore how businesses can achieve alignment between their vision/mission and strategies and achieve the wonders this alignment could do for ensuring business success.
To put the concepts in perspective, let us think of a successful business organisation (regardless of its industry). A key measure for any business's success is its agility i.e. whether it can stay at least one step ahead of its market.
Having a clear sense of purpose (mission) and achieving an alignment between strategy, goals, and that meaningful purpose reinforce one another and give a business a major advantage because it has a clearer sense of what to do at any given time, and it can expect its people (employees) to move in the right direction. More often than not, the result is a business organisation that can focus less on deciding ‘what to do’ and more on simply doing.
Research highlights and supports the importance of connections between direction, strategy, goals, and purpose to a business’s sustained good performance. Studies have shown, when employees understand and are excited about the direction their company is taking, the company’s earnings margin is likely to be twice above the median.
High-achieving businesses are also better than others at turning their visions into viable strategies that guide operational planning. This is something many business leaders may believe they already do well, but which often proves difficult in practice.
The final connection is to the goals that motivate people as individuals. In their 2011 book The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and independent researcher Steven Kramer found that the strongest organisations were those that nurtured their employee’s inner work lives by allowing them to make progress in meaningful work.
In practice, that is rare to witness. Typically, it is at the individual level where the vision breaks down i.e. employees do not see connections between the inspirational language they hear and their daily work lives. The result usually is more cynicism rather than motivation.
However, some businesses do successfully make all of those links i.e. the vision, strategy, and goals come together and translate into meaningful daily work routines. By doing so, they enable a sense of achievement within the organisation which in turn motivates their employees to work towards achieving more.
Businesses that aim at transformation typically fall within one of the two categories when it comes to their visions. The larger category consists of organisations whose visions have weakened over time. This could happen due to sustained neglect or inconsistent understanding of the fundamental purpose. For instance, an organisation whose vision focuses on quality and operational efficiency may discover that the decisions it made to increase efficiency have undermined quality. Or the organisations that seek to be credible across major market segments find that internal competition reduces organisational focus, leading to declines in almost every segment.
The smaller category consists of organisations whose visions are still quite strong but where changing environmental circumstances (technological developments, economic conditions, or new market openings) mean that they are no longer able to achieve the vision in the same way. A successful business could need to start its transformation when it is outperforming its industry by many measures. If the leaders sense that demographic, economic, and other changes mean that they needed to reassess their long-term competitive position, the transformation initiatives must begin.
Whilst the organisations in the first category must start by realigning according to what the vision should be, organisations in the second category may omit this step, but are likely to face even larger challenges in convincing their people that despite today’s success, the strategy and goals that implement the vision must change radically in light of external conditions.
An effective vision has to balance multiple dimensions at once. First, it must be broad enough to be recognized by everybody, even in a large and diversified environment. At the same time, it must also be sufficiently specific to differentiate the organisation clearly from its competitors. It must be enduring enough to serve the organisation over the long term while also allowing its execution to change as the enterprise evolves. It must articulate ideals while describing how the organisation wants to progress in ways that seem achievable.
To be truly compelling, the vision must appeal to the five sources of meaning that organisational research has identified. i.e. how the changes will affect the individuals themselves, their teams, their customers, the organisation, and the society. Each of the five sources is the primary motivator for about 20 percent of the population, so touching on all five is essential.
Within those broad guidelines, there is no particular content that appears to offer an advantage: organisations have been equally successful with visions focused on improving cost, growth, market share, sales, or even external constraints. What matters is that the organisation finds the right vision for itself and then communicates and pursues it in a way that is concrete, relevant, and meaningful to individuals.
A new vision is of little use on its own unless it becomes a strategy that supports a tangible set of organisational goals. Together, they outline where the organisation's competitive advantage will come from and how it will be sustained.
The third connection brings the vision and strategy into employee’s daily work routines. This raises the question of how the organisation will communicate the transformation more broadly. If it communicates the changes too early in the process i.e. before employees can see any evidence that they are important and actually work, the organisation risks losing credibility. The transformation efforts may be viewed as yet another corporate initiative destined to fail to deliver anything concrete. But if the organisation communicates the changes too late (particularly if the changes will reduce the organisation's size) rumors may spread, with even greater damage to morale.
The better option, typically, is to wait until the organisation has finished testing the transformation with few teams. Those early successes help refine the organisation's transformation story. As the story spreads through the organisation, managers and their teams adapt the vision to their groups’ work (a process that gives the vision the bottom-up credibility it needs).
As employees at all levels begin to understand the need for the transformation, they also begin to see the transformation’s effects. The greatest impact on employees will be that the targets they seek to meet each day will change (indeed, in some organisations, employees may be getting explicit targets for the first time). These targets will reflect the vision in highly practical terms.
Together, deeper meaning and tangible progress cement the trust that the transformed organisation builds as it delivers more efficiently for customers, enables its people to lead, and (especially) discovers better ways of working. The organisations that earn and keep trust are those that can continue improving indefinitely.