A key leadership skill

corporate visioning

Dan H. Cooprider, PMP

Most of us, if we have been working in an organizational setting for any period of time, have heard the phrase “corporate vision.” Indeed, the large majority of us are probably working for an organization now that has a publicly stated and published corporate vision. It may be that your particular organization has chosen to call it a mission statement, or corporate values statement, or some other title, but they are all essentially intending to accomplish one thing: to describe the fundamental purpose for the organization's existence, and the means it employs to remain in business.

How valuable is your organization's vision statement? Can you recall it, or at least the majority of it, spontaneously? Is it reflected in the practices and attitudes of your co-workers and management? For many organizations, the corporate vision statement has become just another management platitude in the age of management platitudes (employees are our greatest asset, customer satisfaction is our top priority, everyone in this organization will have to sacrifice equally—you know them). Hollow statements of management's desires for the organization often end up being treated as just another plaque on the wall, or worse yet, another candidate for our environmentally-conscious recycling campaign. Other companies, however, use vision statements to galvanize the focus and energy of their entire organization to achieve great success. What's the difference? How is it that a “corporate vision” can be the source of inspiration for one company, and merely round-file material for another? And, by the way, just how valuable is this “corporate visioning” stuff—can it really make a difference? The answers await the studious reader.

Value of Vision

Many examples of the “soft” benefits of corporate visioning might be presented. Rather than bore the reader with what might be described as yet more platitudes, we will explore serious bottom-line implications.

Consider the study conducted by two Stanford business professors, Jerry I. Porras and James C. Collins. They polled CEOs from a variety of Fortune 500 and Inc. 100 companies to determine a consensus of which contemporary companies might be described as “vision-driven.” Once a list of 20 companies was developed, they examined a hypothetical case of having invested $1 in each of those companies in 1926 (or whenever they were first listed on the stock exchange). The result of this hypothetical case is that “vision-driven” companies perform 55 times better than the general market [2].

Given that certain anomalies in particular industry segments might have contributed to some of the performance differential, another study was conducted in which a vision-driven company from a specific industry segment was paired with a non-vision-driven company from the same industry at about the same point in time. Again the results were impressive. Vision-driven companies perform eight times better than their non-vision-driven competitors.

Clearly, the results are conclusive. Vision-driven companies enjoy substantially better performance than the general market and their competitors.

Ask yourself about your organization's vision. Does it inspire a clear mental picture of a positive and enjoyable future? Does it imply (or state) the overarching values that guide the company's decision processes? Is there anything ennobling communicated by the vision of the company? Does management “walk the talk”?

Characteristics of an Effective Corporate Vision

By now at least some of you are wondering about the differences between an effective corporate vision and an ineffective one. In the Porras and Collins study, the differences that emerged were, “visionary companies have clearly articulated core values (deeply held beliefs analogous to an individual's philosophy of life) and a mission (a reason for being)” [2].

To expand on that, Stephen Covey, in his book Principle-Centered Leadership, suggests that there are three primary constituents to a universal mission statement (his suggested device for creating “shared vision”) [1]:

  • Economic well-being. The company needs to incorporate the simple fundamental that it exists to serve an economic purpose.
  • Quality of work life. Included in this category are five dimensions:
    1. Acceptance and love
    2. Challenge and growth
    3. Purpose and meaning
    4. Fairness and opportunity
    5. Life balance
  • All stakeholders. Covey encourages consideration of “all who have a stake in the welfare or success of the enterprise.”

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, touches on several other aspects of an effective corporate vision [3]. He describes a corporate vision as “the picture of the future we seek to create.” He also explains how the development of a corporate vision, due to the fact that it is a picture of the future and not of the present condition, causes a tension within the organization to develop. And, he explains that mastery of organizational or shared vision starts first with the ability to inspire and create individual vision.

The other aspects that we need to understand about corporate vision come from the educational curricula of The Pacific Institute in Seattle, Washington, a leading developer of cognitive science-based education. According to the Pacific Institute, corporate vision, as the name implies, is a mental image of the future. The image is spawned by the reading of words. If it is to be entirely effective, the image must also evoke positive emotions on the part of all stakeholders that read it. Other characteristics of the vision are:

  • Action-oriented.
  • Positive—describe what you are to become, not what you wish to avoid becoming.
  • Motion picture, not a still frame.
  • Words should be written in the future tense, as if the future picture has already happened.
  • Should seek to create cognitive dissonance—that is, future vision must be quite different than current performance, thereby creating tension.

The curriculum also says that individuals are more easily taught the process of “corporate visioning” by learning and applying the processes involved in individual visioning. And corporate visioning is only one part of creating a galvanizing and inspirational process that leads to dramatic improvement in an organization's operations. The other critical ingredients are commitment, accountability, communication, participation, and empowerment.


Now armed with a clearer understanding of the value and content of an effective corporate vision, ask yourself about your organization's vision. Does the reading of these words inspire a clear mental picture of a positive and enjoyable future? Does it imply (or state) the overarching values that guide the company's decision processes? Is there anything ennobling communicated by the vision of the company? Does management “walk the talk”?

Depending on the answers to these questions, it may be time to encourage a refocusing of your company's “visioning” process. ∎


1. Covey, Stephen R. 1991. Principle-Centered Leadership. New York: Fireside.

2. Lee, Chris.1993. The Vision Thing. Training (February), pp. 25–34.

3. Senge, Peter M. 1990. The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday.


Dan H. Cooprider, CCC, PMP, is president and founder of Creative People Management, Inc., a full-service project management consultation and training company based in West Palm Beach, Florida.

PM Network • September 1995



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