But there's a problem with all of those approaches, according to Andrew Carton, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton school. He co-authored a recently published paper that examines what type of language actually works when it comes to setting broad corporate goals. The research, published in the December issue of the Academy of Management Journal, finds that the most effective vision statements include very few corporate "values" and far more terminology that conjures up concrete images for employees.
In other words, they focus on tangible ideas. One example of ineffective language, as Carton and his co-authors write, was one hospital they studied that said its vision was to "distinguish itself for its achievement of excellence in quality outcomes." (Whatever that means.) Far better, because of the image it creates, was another hospital that said "our vision would be realized" when "donors tell friends and neighbors that gifts to [hospital name] are the best decisions they have ever made."
The authors studied hospitals in California and interviewed a few dozen such CEOs, examining how their vision statements lined up with the day-to-day language they used. They found that the hospitals with more image-driven vision statements had slightly lower rates of readmission for heart attack patients. In a separate experiment, they recruited full-time employees to design a toy, and the groups given vision statements with more imagery and fewer "values" produced better prototypes.
Carton answered the following questions about jargon, his research and even setting New Year's resolutions via e-mail for On Leadership. The e-mailed questions and answers that follow have been lightly edited for space and clarity.
Q. One way of interpreting your point that vision statements should use more descriptive imagery is that they should simply use less jargon. For instance, they should leave out vague terms like "customers" or "values" or "sustainability" that don't have specific meaning, is that right?
A. Absolutely. Jargon is difficult, usually impossible, to visualize. The example of “sustainability” is a great one. People have a general understanding of what “sustainability” means, but it’s not something that anyone can actually see. When I hear “environmental sustainability,” I don’t get a concrete image in my mind. In contrast, if someone says “a city full of hybrid cars” — that’s an image. That’s something we can all see. It’s these types of images that get people on the same page and get them inspired.
Another example of a speech tactic that doesn’t translate well to images is numbers. When I teach vision communication, I set what I call the “no numbers rule,” which is that people should try to avoid using numbers when they craft visions of the future. Oftentimes people mistakenly think that a clearer and crisper vision means a vision that is more quantifiable. A 10 percent increase in revenue, for example. But that’s not the case. Numbers are actually abstract concepts that are difficult to visualize.
Another problem is that language often only seems worthy of an organization’s overarching vision if it sounds important and grandiose. But grandiose verbiage is often far too abstract to visualize in the mind’s eye. When leaders talk about “serving the community” or “improving the world,” it sounds lofty, which is great. But it’s not something tangible.
An effective vision is what we’d call an “idealized image”: a portrait of the best possible future that can be visualized. This is the kind of speech tactic that someone like Martin Luther King was so good at — speaking about the best possible future but doing it in a way that resembled a story. The key is that the best visions are mini-stories or mini-movies. Rather than talk about “maximizing customer satisfaction,” you should talk about “seeing customers smiling as they leave our stores.”
Q. Isn't one of the problems that these vision statements are often crafted for outsiders as much as they are for employees, so they aren't specific enough to motivate and inspire people toward great performance?
A. In more than 30 interviews, we found that leaders craft these statements themselves and often consider them extremely important for motivating and coordinating employees and just generally setting a strong cultural tone. So they sometimes spend years fine-tuning them. Even if these statements are not invoked on a regular basis, they’re often communicated to employees during critical periods when company leaders are trying to ensure that employees understand the purpose of the company.
Two examples are orientation and annual meetings. Some companies also plaster vision and values statements in very visible places around the office, such as on office walls or on TV monitors at the entrance to the office space. So the influence of these statements may in part be subliminal.
Q. How much better was performance at hospitals that used that kind of language?
A. On average, hospitals with leaders who communicated imagery along with a small number of values (so as not to dilute the impact of the vision) had about two fewer heart attack patients who needed to be readmitted each year, when compared to hospitals with leaders who didn’t use imagery in their visions or who communicated an overabundance of values.
Q. How do you know that the image-driven vision statements were actually what led to better numbers for the hospitals?
A. We weren’t able to directly test for [what] led to the performance gain in our study of hospitals. So we ran a follow-up experiment in order to unpack why this type of rhetoric boosts performance. We arranged full-time employees to work in teams, and we asked them to design a prototype of a toy. We found the same basic effect as in our study with hospitals: those who were exposed to image-laden visions and a small number of values developed better toy prototypes.
We also ruled out a number of alternative explanations. We included 17 control variables, including hospital size, the hospitals’ performance in the prior year, CEO tenure and the difficulty of achieving the vision. Our results held when controlling for all of these factors.
Q. What about people setting individuals goals, especially New Year's resolutions for the year ahead. Do the same ideas apply?
A. A number of scholars have conducted research showing that vivid glimpses of what the future may look like are useful for all of us. In one study, Hal Hershfield and several of his colleagues showed that we save more for the future if we are able to view a computer-generated picture that approximates how we will look when we get older.
Another study found that people who think about the future in concrete rather than abstract terms are less likely to procrastinate. By making the future more vivid, it becomes very real to us and we prioritize it more.
This can be particularly useful for setting New Year’s resolutions. The key is not just to aim to lose 10 pounds or run a marathon. Sure, specific goals are necessary to track our progress. But often they aren’t enough on their own. You should also vividly imagine how you’ll feel when you try on that dress that hasn’t fit since high school and then wear it to your friend’s wedding next summer. Or about crossing the finish line of your first marathon on a beautiful morning next fall, putting your arms up to the sky, and yelling “I did it.”
Q. What advice do you have for managers as they craft vision statements and goals for 2015?
A. Use words that capture how people perceive the world around them. In our ongoing research, we’re finding that some of the best ways to do this involve actually imagining yourself five or ten years in the future, and witnessing what the world looks like when it has been influenced by your latest product or service.
What are people doing differently? Describe a scene in which they’re using your product or being affected by your service. Get very detailed. For example, describe their facial expressions. Use nouns and verbs that capture real people engaged in real action. Tell a very brief story about what you see. And stay away from jargon, numbers and grand-sounding rhetoric that can’t easily be visualized.