Forget vision, it’s purpose that counts

Hands up if your organisation has a vision.   Mmmm, that’s most of you.   But why do we have visions, and do they work?   Most of them aren’t inspiring.  Many are too long, full of jargon and instantly forgettable.   Ask people in most organisations what their company vision is and they either won’t know or they’ll repeat it with an embarrassed giggle and a frown, as if it’s been drummed into them against their will.  Which it probably has.    Personally, I think visions are overrated.   In fact, I’d go as far as saying that most visions don’t work.    Yes, they set a direction and articulate a view of the ‘desired state’ – nothing wrong with that – but they don’t motivate.   People get motivated by purpose and meaning, by feeling they are part of something.   They get engaged by having an emotional attachment to the organisation – a sense of fulfillment, pride and togetherness.     In his popular book on leadership, Start With Why, author Simon Sinek asserts that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.    Is it enough to put forward a set of messages about where the organisation is headed and what it aspires to, if the receiver of the message doesn’t know why?    What’s more, research has shown that people don’t get motivated by a promise of what might be in the future.  They get motivated by what’s happening now.   It’s called the theory of ‘delayed gratification.’   Offer someone £100 now or £110 in a week from now and most people will take the £100 now.  Offer them £100 now or £500 in a week and they’ll be interested, but will probably not trust you to deliver.   This is what we do with visions – set out a grand description of how great we hope things will be in the future, but how often do we deliver?   And are we that motivated by the prospect of what 2015 might look like when real life tells us we might not even be here?   How many workers are genuinely going to get inspired by a vision to “deliver shareholder value” or to “leverage benefits across the value chain”?   Would that get you out of bed?   No, it’s purpose that counts.    Workers nowadays want to know what they are part of and why they do what they do.   They want to feel that what they do makes a difference.    Ever since we first looked up at the stars, we human beings have looked for meaning in our lives.   It’s what Viktor Frankl wrote about in his groundbreaking book Man’s search for meaning … a book written on scraps of stolen paper during his time in Auschwitz and which describes how, even in the darkest places, we can still find significance in our lives.    But do most of us really have true significance in our working lives?   Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-vision.   I understand and support the need to set a direction, articulate a future and give people some idea of what their organisation is aiming for.  I get the point of values, as long as they reflect the values of the people who work in the organisation and they are involved in their creation.   But vision and values aren’t enough.   They explain the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ but they don’t say ‘why’.   And it’s ‘why’ that matters.