Visions are not fit for purpose

The UK government is making changes to pension rules to force providers to be more realistic in their forecasts.   In your annual pension statement your provider has to provide a forecast setting out what your annual pension should be if your fund was to grow at a certain limit, say 5%, 7% and 9%.  But the government has said that these growth forecasts are too high and that growth levels of around 2% should be included.   Whatever.   Anyway, it feels to me that pensions are a good analogy for organisational visions.   Like pensions, we visualise this wonderful payback on maturity and use that to seek investment (in our case, in effort and engagement rather than financial contributions).   But like pension forecasts, most visions are vastly over-optimistic.   I’ve never worked for a company that has achieved a vision it set out after.   Besides, who’s motivated to work hard every day and do the best they can because of a pension forecast?    The problem with visions is that they’re too distant.   In today’s manic, unpredictable and continually changing business world, trying to visualise anything much more than one year out is mainly guesswork.   So to avoid the detail, the temptation is to make the vision so bland it becomes meaningless.  That’s why we see visions about ‘being the provider of choice’ or ‘maximising shareholder value’ – pointless, dreary and devoid of inspiration.   And most of us don’t feel secure enough to believe we’ll be around to realise the vision anyway!   In reality, you don’t engage people today by offering then a vision of a distant tomorrow.    You’ll know from previous posts that I’m not a fan of most organisational visions.  I think purpose is more important, and most visions are quite literally not fit for purpose.   Visions (supposedly) articulate where we’re going.   But if you know why you’re doing what you’re doing and it has some meaning to you, the ‘where’ becomes a useful pointer to aim for but not the fundamental driver.   The where can be left to the planners.   People are motivated by today, not tomorrow.  Even if the reward may come tomorrow, the motivation to get there has to happen today.   Asking someone to get all inspired about something that won’t happen for three-to-five years (if indeed it happens at all, which is unlikely) is like asking them to invest in that pension.   Yes they’ll see the logic and give you some investment but it won’t be the reason they’ll get out of bed in the morning.    But if I had something to go to work for that fulfils me NOW, well now you’re talking.   Let’s say I had a job full of purpose, like running a donkey sanctuary.   I could set a vision to have ten sanctuaries across the UK within five years.   But my purpose will be to look after the wellbeing of donkeys and that’s what will drive me and my staff every day.   The five-site plan will be something to aim for but it will never be the ‘reason why’.    So why do we persevere with these dull vision statements?   The answer is that purpose is so much harder to articulate.   It’s easy to paint a picture of a future world where all is sweetness and light, point to it and say “that’s where we want to go”.  But it’s much much harder to put into words why we do what we do.    People give their best when they feel fulfilled, engaged and valued and when their work has meaning to them.   But it’s hard to explain how we feel and it’s hard for us communicators to find the right words to articulate and create that sense of purpose.   Hard but not impossible.

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