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The Challenge of an Unclear or Miscommunicated Vision

by Zane Gambasin, 09 April 2019

As part of our new ‘6 Common Elements of Change’ series, I’ll be taking a deep dive into the concepts of Vision, Principles, Practices, Structure, Technology and Leadership previously touched upon by Kelly Waters. Particularly exploring how they play a key role in helping people understand the link between the change and the company’s success or survival.

Why is vision needed?

Every startup or organisation needs to have a ‘vision’, and will at the beginning of their journey, but it  is especially important at any point of transformation. It needs to detail what the company is trying to achieve long-term and why. For example a publisher moving from print to digital, or from advertising to other revenue models. Without a vision for such change, it becomes less achievable, as it is not able to be seen in the minds eye of the people working towards it.

Examples of successful, transformative vision statements can be seen through TED’s evolution in 2002 from a for-profit conference company to not-for-profit event that would, ‘Spread ideas worth spreading’ or Patagonia’s: ‘Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis’.

The challenge of miscommunication

Outlining company vision and new goals is always very important, but it means little if there is a later miscommunication or complete failure to translate it down the chain. While it may not be deliberate – or even known about – miscommunication around vision can be fatal.

So, how does it happen? Sometimes a vision for change will be discussed by management and leadership between each other, but isn’t subsequently shared with key stakeholders, teams or new starters. Or – as is common in startups – a vision may be articulated at the beginning of the journey, with assumptions made that everyone is aware of it and nothing more needs to be done. However, during periods of growth or transformation, sustaining communications about the company’s vision (and it’s changing status) can be forgotten about, meaning that new joiners aren’t aware of it.

Other times, a revised vision will be frequently communicated, but not well enough. What might be impactful for engineers may not be right for brand people and vice versa. While the whole organisation has to follow the same core one, it is important that the vision is adapted and related to each area of the organisation and told how they can help in their own way to achieve it.

The impact of miscommunicating a vision for change

When there is no vision for change shared, or its core message is unclear, people begin moving in different directions to each other. Confusion reigns and staff begin working on what they believe to be right and what might, conversely, conflict with the stated company goals. As I’ve seen happen, if they are then pulled up for doing so or don’t gain any benefit from it, people quickly become disillusioned and disengaged from the product, putting its development at risk.

A lack of vision or miscommunication also makes management look inconsistent or, worse, disinterested. This leads to people failing to buy into the culture, an inability to connect the dots or failure to recognise where they fit into the bigger picture, and therefore how they’re involved in delivering that vision.

On a wider level, a mis- or non-communicated vision impacts both retention and recruitment. Not defining a transformative vision results in a higher employee turnover as they don’t know why the company is doing what they are now doing, and how they help, therefore becoming disenfranchised with the company.

In my 25 years of experience, I’ve seen this happen a number of times. On one occasion, a company was building what seemed to be a like-for-like platform. While you can assume there was a reason behind this, it was never made clear what that reason was nor what the benefit would be, which made staff restless. It would have been simple to articulate if it was about cost-savings, optimisation or resilience etc, but the development teams were told to, “Just do it”. People became disillusioned, lost faith in the leadership and some even voted with their feet and resigned.

When combined with goals, and objectives, strategic decisions and intent, vision has been shown to be a key factor in improving overall organisational performance. It follows therefore that this is a direct consequence of people understanding a vision for change and their role in bringing it to fruition on both an individual and team-level. Time therefore needs to be spent thinking not only about the vision itself, but how it should be adapted for a particular audience.

What does good communication look like?

A number of years ago, I worked with a client who was operating post-merger and despite facing huge transformation efforts, navigated it successfully by sharing their vision widely and repeatedly. The company had a large programme of work, with several brands and their respective teams under one umbrella, so needed to refine and unify its systems.

Leadership began the process first by communicating what they wanted the company to move towards and how, but also – and this is key – why. The plan and reasons behind the vision were written on the walls of offices, referenced at the start of all presentations and status emails, and in town halls / broadcasts. The approach was essentially ‘the more information, the better’ and so the company vision was disseminated via several different channels and regularly.

The overall aim of the transformation was cost-savings through optimisation – anything that wasn’t creating value needed to be standardised and upgraded. Investment was made in retraining and repurposing people so they could use the core system and be deployed across any of the brands, while still retaining the individual brand identities and their products for the customers’ benefit.

Sharing a vision for change the right way

It is ultimately the responsibility of leadership to redevelop a clear vision and purpose for an organisation’s future and – together with management – ensure that it is appropriately translated to each department or team, and linked to their specific purpose.

The way to do this properly and effectively is three-fold. First, if it’s been lost, reconsider what the vision should be and why – if the original one worked, great. If it disappeared during the period of change, perhaps it wasn’t resilient or relevant enough. Although a vision statement can (and should) be adaptable to accommodate growth and new ventures, the core message and values need to be ubiquitous, enduring, collaborative, manageable.

Second – it’s important for everyone to understand why the vision has been successful, and how they will know when it has. Once the intent has been agreed, leadership needs to find a way to make it definable and most importantly, measurable. If you intend to become the market leader in X, you need to ascertain what that means and how you can assess its effectiveness, i.e. is it higher turnover than your top three competitors year-on-year or bigger market share? If the latter, your vision has been successful when the pre-defined percentage has been achieved.

Finally, while it may sound simple, the statement needs to be shared in written form: intranets, websites, strategy documents, roadmaps, newsletters etc. and verbally with staff during all hands, team days and one-to-one reviews. And do it often – time spent sharing at the right points will save time and expense incurred from failing to do so.

Communicate it again with new starters during the onboarding process, but ideally, a vision will be shared at the beginning of any recruitment process – especially if people are being brought in to assist the transformation. That way, it’s easier to ensure the right people being attracted by the company’s future ideals, and filters out those that don’t truly share them.

Remember, a clear and well communicated vision may sound easy, but it isn’t and it could be the thing that makes or breaks your chances of success.

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