The importance of having both vision and strategy first became evident to me during Apache attack helicopter training for the U.S. Army. The Apache (AH-64) is considered the world’s most advanced multi-role combat helicopter, and its modern night vision sensor systems provide pilots enhanced situational awareness, greater performance, and better survivability. These sophisticated night vision sensors are used to see in the dark or in adverse weather conditions. Imagine the advantages (and the thrill!) of flying over 150 m.p.h. just above the tree line in darkness and having the ability to see the world beneath and beyond the helicopter.
With clarity of vision, the incredible capabilities of the Apache can be employed to accomplish the designated strategy or mission. However, while vision gives the pilot the necessary clarity to undertake the mission, it is the planned strategy that determines how the goals of the mission will be accomplished.
These principles aren’t limited to the military. In the business world, both vision and strategy are foundational for growth and success. Neither alone is enough to win – leaders must combine a clear and inspiring vision with a carefully crafted, effective strategy that can bring it to fruition.
First, Develop a Vision for the Organization
The vision should be designed to create energy and enthusiasm, along with communicating the organization’s values to its employees and the public. Often, the organization’s vision might be defined in a one-paragraph statement, reflecting the dream of the founder or leader and the core values of the organization. The vision statement must be sufficiently clear and concise so that everyone in the organization understands it and can buy into it with passion. When done right, these aspirational statements can be a rallying point for the team and a catalyst for real action.
The vision statement is not normally subject to the winds of change – it is enduring, but not immutable. It should feel inspiring and fresh, even as market conditions and product direction may change. Within your organization, your vision should be the anchor that holds all of your plans and your strategies together.
Next, Create a Strategy to Achieve the Vision
With a clear vision in place, your organization can develop a strategy or a broad plan that outlines how you’ll accomplish the vision. Strategy is an actionable plan — the measurable goals, high-level initiatives, and other work items that will help you achieve your vision. Setting strategy provides focus and creates guardrails for decisions about what you should work on now and what should wait.
The strategy is one or more plans that will be used to achieve the vision – it’s like a roadmap or outline for getting there. The strategy will look both inward at the organization and outward at the competition and the environment and business climate. Strategy is also dynamic and should be revisited routinely. It should bring together the “why,” “what,” and “when” of the current plans. Strategy does not typically contain financial goals or targets; these come in to play later as a means to measure success.
Sometimes well-intended business leaders lack clarity on the difference between vision and strategy. Certainly, strategy and strategic direction can and should relate to the overall vision, but they are not interchangeable. This can cause confusion in the ranks, as vision is intended to be an over-arching, long-term view of what the organization is and why it exists. The vision statement does not normally change, and it does not dictate specific actions that will be taken. The strategy is the long-term plan, which may sometimes need to pivot in response to internal or external changes; however, the strategy should not be modified until you have a new plan to replace the old one.
What Makes a Strategy Effective?
Here are five key considerations for achieving a successful strategy:
- Differentiation: The strategy should differentiate the organization from the competition and make it distinctive in the marketplace. As a leader, you need to understand what’s going on in your industry so you can create as unique a strategic position as possible. Most employees do not want to be part of a mediocre strategy – they want to feel that they are on a distinctive, winning team that is part of something special and significant.
- What will it take to win: The strategy needs to consider all of the moving parts that span customers, the competition, and the current business environment. This could include product development, revenue targets, customer solutions, and the organization’s value propositions.
- Communication: The strategy should pave the way for a shared culture of success. It should be created within the context of a focus on teamwork and should form diverse and inclusive leadership teams to send a powerful message to employees and customers.
- Critical capabilities: Ensure that you understand the wider implications of your strategy. Lack of consideration of the changes that will be necessary to achieve the strategy could cause serious problems for your business. If work needs to happen faster or in greater volume, for example, the organization may need to transform to meet the specific objectives.
- Lead from the front: Bold leaders should articulate bold ambitions for the organization’s strategy, with clear messaging and role modeling at the top. The greater danger will lie not in setting aspirations too high and falling short, but rather in setting them too low and achieving the less ambitious targets.
As you look ahead to your organization’s future, consider what you can do to set your business apart in the marketplace and also help create excitement within the organization. The organizations that are the best at remaining distinctive and keeping their teams engaged are those that understand what their organization can do to solve customer problems in unique ways. With a clear vision and relevant strategies, you will be much better able to distinguish your organization from others.