IMD International


From vision to action

By Professor Jacques Horovitz with Anne-Valérie Ohlsson  (October, 2006)

"Effort and courage are not enough without purpose and direction," J.F. Kennedy.

The environment in which companies operate is becoming increasingly complex, interconnected, unpredictable and competitive. In this context the last thing an organization needs is a muddled and complicated strategy formulation process that comes up with a bland, tasteless picture of the future.

Most senior executives recognize that the traditional process of strategic planning is no longer useful - fraught with politics and power games. It is too time consuming and lengthy to develop, too incremental, too far from the field, too analytical and too compliant.

Inspiring visions - with a deadline
To achieve sustainable success in this new environment, a company must design a vision that is inspiring, in much the same way that J.F. Kennedy’s Man on the Moon address was both an inspiration and a concrete objective. We call these inspirational visions "dreams with a deadline".

The dream must be short and inspiring, yet achievable. It should reflect the degree of urgency of the current situation, in a way that is credible. And it must carry a deadline, allowing progress and success to be measured and rewarded. Above all, we advocate a vision that is shared by all parties in the organization, calling for commitment rather than compliance.

A one-page statement to inspire for the future
We advocate defining the vision on a single page: the dream with the deadline, its supporting strategies and the behaviors that must exist in the organization, if we are to succeed. It sounds simple - but being able to lay our future out on a single page is much tougher than in a lengthy strategic plan.

Encouraging participation makes the vision much easier to implement than a top-down dictate. This is not an easy exercise – working on a single page, making decisions that are all about implementing the dream, call for selectiveness, consistency, focus and accountability. It requires the ability to project a future and work backwards to fill in the gap, in a very concrete manner. The dream is anything but incremental even though it is broken down into achievable milestones along the way. It needs to be reviewed every year, making sure that you are going in the right direction. The letter of intent that accompanies the vision helps ground the dream by serving as a basis for budgets and targets.

Sharing the vision is as important as defining it. Once agreed, the dream needs to be shared across the organization. The team involved in cascading the vision should decide who will share with whom, what formats will be used and what processes need to be in place to get feedback. Remember that understanding why a company has chosen a specific path generates a feeling of ownership. Talk about the why and not only about the how and when. The entire process must be planned thoroughly, for maximum impact, consistency and focus.

Discipline above all
This is where the issue of discipline comes in. Discipline is the daily demonstration of focus around something you have decided to do. It breeds consistency. Fortunately, there are ways of working on discipline. In terms of personal (leadership) discipline, your focus is demonstrated through a variety of symbols and signals. For example the types of issues that you focus on, the language you use, how you interact and ask questions, who gets appointed and who is invited to meetings. Even what you celebrate is a symbol of what you consider important.

Then there is the matter of corporate discipline. This is about following through on initiatives, (and avoiding the “flavor of the month” syndrome), and when needed, using an umbrella approach under which to group initiatives. It is also very much about staying closely in touch with your business on a daily basis. Finally, it is about acting on ideas, turning them into actions, disseminating good ideas, and appointing champions to support implementation.

With time, exercising discipline becomes part of the organizations’ fabric. The organizational design must also support the execution of that vision. However, while structures can be modified to support a vision, they are often seen as being too mechanical and often result in confining people into roles or silos. In some cases, it is preferable to work with principles and processes rather than try to change existing structures. If principles are recognized and shared by all employees, they support action better than structures. They are also more malleable, adapting to necessary changes in the strategy.

Key organizational behaviors
While discipline is about making sure that all the initiatives you launch go in the same direction and that you consistently walk your talk, three other behaviors are crucial in building an organization that is flexible and will be able to change its environment or adapt to it as need be:

  • Trust speeds up execution and allows you to rely on a great many more people to implement, because you do not feel as though you need to control everything. There is also a direct link between trust and the desired behaviors (what we call the foundation of the house model). If everyone in the company shares the same values, their actions will fall within the realm of those values.
  • Support is about putting your money where your mouth is. It requires investing resources (people, time, money) into what has been recognized as important to the execution of the vision, and it means allocating strong leaders to champion the initiatives.
  • Finally, stretch is about encouraging people to go beyond their comfort zones, experiment and propose new ways of doing things, agreeing to, and then achieving stretch goals.

This article is based on the authors' book: "A Dream with a Deadline : How to Turn a strategy for tomorrow into a plan for today" (see right column). The book is the result of work with over 25 companies to find a way of creating inspiring visions.

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