Get More from Your Company Vision by Asking It to Do Less

January 24, 2019
14 Minutes
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In SaaS businesses, operating results are earned every single day; and good businesses are made, not found. Writing here about building organizations, learning from the experience, and appreciating the ride.

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I wrote in a previous post about defining a SaaS business’ product vision, and in another one about orienting company operations around the needs of key stakeholder groups. Each of those activities plays a role in ensuring alignment and optimization of a company’s limited resources. I’ve since read this post from Josh Schachter which beautifully ties together those and many related ideas. His article “How Teams Can Outperform Using the Startup Ops Pyramid” introduces an excellent model for establishing a shared mission and “unifying any multi-disciplinary team on a single set of goals.” For years, our teams at a wide range of SaaS businesses have been using (and consistently inspecting & adapting) a similar model for this exact purpose. And while there are certainly some distinctions between our two models in terms of terminology and emphasis, my hope today is simply to build upon Josh Schachter’s excellent work.

Specifically, at the top of his Startup Ops Pyramid is the team’s vision. The article cites the very useful metaphor (made famous by former Medtronic CEO Bill George) of vision as true north for a team. It also establishes the key criterion that a vision must be simultaneously “aspirational, yet still relevant to present day.” The article provides some additional nuggets about vision, before moving on to discuss “vision pillars” (which our model would classify as “strategic pillars” (potato, po-TAH-to, as they say)) and other elements of the pyramid. What I want to double-click on here, though, is this crucially important — but maddeningly elusive — task of setting a team’s vision.

The bottom line is: setting a vision is hard. And frustrating. And, if not actively leveraged, commonly not worth the time and energy that goes into creating it. In many people’s minds, it’s right up there with crafting the much-maligned “mission statement” in terms of incurring organizational brain damage or inciting collective eye-rolling. But that doesn’t need to be the case; and I’m hoping the following points can help alleviate some of the pain — because successfully identifying your company’s true north is totally worth the effort.

More than anything else, I’ve observed what makes vision-setting hard is the monolithic and high-stakes nature of it. After all, the whole purpose is to distill the vastness of everything we are as a company and everything we want to become in the future into one statement. One single, pithy, inspiring-but-credible, non-constraining-but-also-non-delusional, universally-relevant-but-narrowly-applicable, not-too-jargon-filled, baby-bear-just-right kind of a statement. In other words, it’s extremely difficult to do, and in many ways is set-up for failure. Why? Because we want our vision / mission to be too many things to too many people and for it to do way too much. We expect the vision to be everything from the words we see on the splash-page of our website, to the opening statement we use in every sales call, to the ethos we use to recruit team-members, to the guidance we consult to set detailed performance metrics, to the all-knowing arbiter for helping us prioritize what features to build in our solution, and countless other tasks for which it is likely ill-equipped.

To battle this, my argument is NOT to grind away at defining and concisely codifying that one, shining true north. Nor is it to better delineate between terms such as vision / mission / strategy (although there are absolutely useful distinctions). Rather, I want to try to expand upon this idea of true north from being one single point of light, and re-imagine it as a whole constellation of separate, but intimately connected and interdependent guide stars, that a company can truly use to light the path forward.

Specifically, if we allow ourselves to temporarily avoid wordsmithing (i.e. forget about the loaded terms “mission” or “vision” and stop worrying about how it sounds!), we can ask and answer a whole series of questions that help us think more holistically about who and what we want to become. The collective output, of these simple but profound exercises can then be referenced as needed by a range of stakeholders. It can also be flexibly leveraged to more precisely fulfill the kinds of organizational needs described above. I call these “existential questions,” and a below are seven of them that we like to use to help create our constellation of true north stars:

1. What impact do we want to have on the world?

  • Why ask it: This is the most direct route that I’ve seen to figuring out the “vision” question, but without all the hype or baggage. Answering this question is far more tangible / addressable than sitting down cold and trying to dream up a lofty vision statement.
  • How to use it: This can be used as general scaffolding for all kinds of organizational needs ranging from crafting messaging to help your solution-selling efforts to drafting an actual vision statement.
  • Tips: This exercise is still hard work and requires significant discussion. But, ideally it will enable you to get valuable input from necessary stakeholders in a non-charged environment; and then a far smaller group of writers can potentially worry about polishing the substantive output. Remember, this is centered around impact on the world at large, NOT your company. Hint: “To permanently rid the world of snipe-hunting disease” could be a legitimate response to this question; but “To be the world’s largest, most respected treatment for snipe-hunting disease” is a fail.

2. In a very general sense, what do we want to be as a company when we grow up?

  • Why ask it: This is the most direct route that I’ve seen to figuring out the “mission” question, but (again) without all the well-worn baggage. Answering this question requires big-picture, long-term perspective, but is also applicable on a day-to-day basis.
  • How to use it: The outcome of this exercise provides a ready-answer to the many stakeholders who need to understand where the company is going. But it should also provide a good litmus test on even short-term tactics or tasks in the future: if an activity contributes to what we agree upon here, it’s inherently worth doing. If not…it’s not.
  • Tips / Tricks: A couple alternative ways to ask this question are: What achievement as a company would give us the most pride X years from now? Or: What (real or fictitious) award will we collect X years from now, and how will we be introduced at the ceremony? Hint: I like to leave the time-horizon open, to be determined by the company’s stage and situation. In general, the longer the better (5–10 years). But for very early companies, anything longer than 3 years feels like an eternity; and I find 36 months to be a useful time-horizon here.

3. What business are we in?

  • Why ask it: This is the most direct route that I’ve seen to figuring out the “mission” question, but (again) without all the well-worn baggage. Answering this question requires big-picture, long-term perspective, but is also applicable on a day-to-day basis.
  • How to use it: The outcome of this exercise provides a ready-answer to the many stakeholders who need to understand where the company is going. But it should also provide a good litmus test on even short-term tactics or tasks in the future: if an activity contributes to what we agree upon here, it’s inherently worth doing. If not…it’s not.
  • Tips / Tricks: A couple alternative ways to ask this question are: What achievement as a company would give us the most pride X years from now? Or: What (real or fictitious) award will we collect X years from now, and how will we be introduced at the ceremony? Hint: I like to leave the time-horizon open, to be determined by the company’s stage and situation. In general, the longer the better (5–10 years). But for very early companies, anything longer than 3 years feels like an eternity; and I find 36 months to be a useful time-horizon here.

4. What is our product offering today and in its ultimate expression? Why, how, to whom (and against whom) do we sell it?

  • Why ask it: Maybe more than any other, I feel this exercise forces us to begin tying together the reality of current-state with future ambitions, as well as considering the needs of prospects, clients, internal team, and financial investors — all in concert with each other.
  • How to use it: There are so darn many uses for this. My favorite though is to serve as the Product Vision, which I wrote a bit about in this post. Done well, this can ably serve as the foundation, which informs and influences the Product Framework, Guiding Principles, and future Product Roadmaps.
  • Tips: At multiple companies, we’ve used the “Elevator Pitch” template from Geoffrey Moore’s classic book “Crossing the Chasm” (copyright 1991, now in its 3rd edition) as a framework for this. Don’t be fooled by the name or the age of this framework; I find that it remains incredibly relevant and substantive. As I write this, I realize this likely warrants a dedicated post to talk through nuances of execution. Hint: be prepared for some knock-down exchanges among leadership team members (which I encourage) and recognize that this will be an evolving effort. You won’t get it exactly right the first time; in fact, you never really get to spike the ball in the end-zone on this one and declare it complete.

5. What are we passionate about? What are we good at? What will people pay us for? Where do all three of these things overlap?

  • Why ask it: Identifying the epicenter of this Venn diagram should help nail-down your company’s Unique Selling Proposition and begin to establish the multi-tiered basis on which you compete against all foes. My experience is that many small-scale companies fall into the trap of believing they are intrinsically unique or special (newsflash — they’re not); and they wait far too long to understand their competitive landscape and sharpen their competitive sword.
  • How to use it: Again, there are many uses for this, from the high-level to the tactical. I like the output of this exercise as a succinct summation of where we should be investing our energies toward constant improvement. After all, if the center of this Venn diagram is where we are staking our claim, we better be able to stand on the high-ground. This is also really helpful at a tactical level in sales and marketing. It informs market-facing collateral and should figure prominently into answering the inevitable question: “why should I work with your company?”
  • Tips: Some people will have recognized the above questions as coming from the “Hedgehog Exercise” from Jim Collins’ masterpiece “Good to Great.” Far too much to write about that here. Hint: Don’t overthink this. We’ve had a lot of luck with rapid-reaction scrum-style exercises where people post sticky notes on walls…and then later sift-and-sort to make sense of things after the dust has settled. Hint #2: This one can prove challenging, and sometimes people fall into the trap of coming up with buzzwords or platitudes. If that happens, I recommend re-framing this one and ask the question: “What REALLY makes us different / better than anything else out there?” This often forces a lot of self-honesty regarding what makes you special — and some real soul-searching if it is too hard to complete with conviction.

6. What does the market think about us? How do we want to be perceived? What stands in the way of getting from the current to desired perception?

  • Why ask it: This gets to the heart of your company’s brand promise. I am a strong believer in the power of brands; and I believe that setting and managing your brand warrants thorough and thoughtful research (i.e. FAR more goes into it than picking a color palette and logo). But in a pinch, I find this to be a good short-cut to getting solid concurrence around priorities for how you want to present your company at all times.
  • How to use it: You can almost think about this as an organizational conscience, keeping you focused on what you want to project to the outside world. Before undertaking any market-facing projects, refer to the output of this exercise as a guide. Such projects would include building a website, creating sales collateral, setting a strategy for conference-presence, crafting client support experiences, and many more. That said, your brand promise will also influence internal decision-making such as recruiting strategies and investments in data-producing systems. Having a clear-eyed understanding from the beginning of the presence you wish to convey to the world is extremely valuable.
  • Tips: I like to have a little fun with this one by encouraging people to think about extremes. What would our best customers say about us? What about the client who doesn’t dig us — the one who chose not to renew, or otherwise expressed dissatisfaction? How do we look when we are at our best? Our worst? What would our most ardent team-members say about the organization? The disgruntled ex-employee? What would I focus on if I were a competitor and trying to knock us out? I find these questions really help. It can be hard to come up with your desired brand promise in isolation — again, it can become buzzword-bingo. But, once you have this as a current-state base-line, it becomes a lot easier to (a) think about the ideal-state, and (b) begin to craft a plan for achieving that goal.

7. How do we want to work? What kind of environment do we want to create?

  • Why ask it: I find this to be a good way to nail-down a shared set of company values, that will actually be broadly referenced and used. Again, I am a huge fan identifying company values, because I believe that these are critically important to scaling any organization. But the problem with company values is that it can be a challenge for people to connect lofty words like “integrity” or “accountability” with how they actually work and interact with others on a daily basis. This question seeks to START with how people wish to work, and the values tend to reveal themselves organically — which I’ve observed is a healthy and sustainable way to go about this.
  • How to use it: For this one, I’d say to apply the Nike Rule: Just Do It.
  • Tips: Broad participation is great, although I find that the senior leadership team should really set the initial parameters for this one in its first iteration. It’s definitely good to bring more team members into the discussion as you begin to think about how you want to ensure your operating environment supports the working ideals (and related values) you have identified as being critical to your organization.

Using Your Constellation:

As I write this, I realize that there are so many more exercises that could be included in the list above. And yet, this seems like plenty for now. Hopefully, I’ve expanded Josh Schacter’s truth north vision from single star into a broad-based constellation of north stars to by which to navigate. The constellation can be referenced in all the ways the variety of stakeholders need: how to present ourselves in an RFP, how to represent ourselves in creating a job description, and how to talk about the product roadmap in a sensible and compelling way, for example. That’s a lot to ask of one, thoughtful, single vision statement.

But, far more important than the series of exercises, is how your organization chooses to view and use the work that comes from them. I have found that the collective output and learning from these types of exercises can offer a “true north constellation” that is at once specific and clear, but also flexible, broadly applicable, and pragmatically actionable — often far more so than a vision statement in a traditional sense. In my experience, this work is equally valuable either as a complement to your company’s existing vision statement, or as an alternative to the challenging task of crafting one.

Still, as we often say, “The hard work starts AFTER the meeting;” and this is absolutely the case in connection to these “existential questions.” Accordingly, I hope to focus a future post on steps to ensure the organization is actualizing the ideals envisioned in these exercises and getting better at doing so every single day.

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