Elephants in the room: where Vision statements go wrong

Ancient wisdom on Vision – from blind men

Part 2 on Vision Statements. In examining the many ways that our clients’ Vision statements have gone wrong in the past (and some spectacularly wrong), buy Beg to Differ can almost always sum up the biggest problem in one word: proximity. But don’t take our word for it; take it from an ancient tale of six men who tried to establish a common vision. And failed….


Six blind men write a Vision statement

The story I’m referring to is the Blind Men and the Elephant. Variations are found in cultures across Asia, but poet John Godfrey Saxe introduced it to Europe:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind…
Six blind monks – from a Japanese watercolor illustrating the same story

It’s a long poem (whole text here), but to sum up the action: six blind men approach an elephant and come away with six different impressions. One thinks an elephant is like a tree, one like a rope, one like a snake, etc. And while each of their descriptions is sincerely argued, and accurately reflects their observations, the poet laments that “each was partly in the right / And all were in the wrong.”

Now imagine pulling those six blind men into a room and trying to write a Vision statement.

Describing the elephant: where vision statements go wrong

In the story, here are the mistakes the blind men made – and I’m going to suggest that we make the same ones ourselves.

1) They are all blind (and so are we): When it comes to our own businesses and products, each of us is blind to the big picture – the whole animal. This is equally true of me and my company (note to self: update corporate Web site soon), you and yours, and blind elephant-feelers everywhere: we are all victims of habit, corporate silos, and unconscious vested interests.

There’s nothing wrong with blindness of course. But bringing in a “sighted” outsider can certainly speed things up.

2) They didn’t share their “visions” to create “Vision”: Notice that each blind man worked in isolation before comparing notes with colleagues. Imagine if they all had been talking to each other during the research phase. “What do you mean rope? This seems more wall-ish. Seriously, come over here and check this out… etc.” Wouldn’t they be more successful – and fight less?

435px-Blind_men_and_elephant43) Lack of common reference points: Saxe says that the men “Rail on in utter ignorance / Of what each other mean.” Because of the blinkers mentioned above, we need to check, double check, then write down our common understandings of corporate jargon, nomonyms, and other key language.

4) They ignored the elephant. These blind men SAID they wanted to learn about the elephant, for each to “satisfy his mind”, but they seem more interested in having talking points for the argument to come. Shame none of them examined the elephant’s navel. But then they’d have to take their heads out of their own.

5) Who was the exercise for? Perhaps they would have had more luck if they had a clearer goal in mind of who the customer for this information would be. Then they could test their theories against the only metric that matters: how much does their work help someone else understand the elephant?

6) Description is not Vision: even if all the blind men had been able to articulate a more accurate idea of the elephant, they still couldn’t get the elephant to do anything. For that, they’d need to study behaviour, capabilities, knowledge of how other elephants are being used and trained. And finally they’d need to correct one last mistake…

7) Vision needs direction: The blind men lacked clear goals and an audience. But they also lacked a destination or at least a clear sense of the direction they should be heading  – which is the “north star” that should guide any effective Vision exercise.

But then doesn’t that make this a Mission rather than a Vision? The next post in this series will take on that thorny issue. But in the meantime, we’re still looking for your help: vision stories; examples; thoughts?