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Business Visioning

Why Write a Company Vision and How to Get Started

It’s January 1, 2025 and your business has been quite successful.  What do you see, hear, smell and feel going on around you that is evidence of that success?  If you can describe that scene, you’ll have a vision of greatness for your organization – an incredibly powerful tool to get everyone working together and moving in the same direction.

Or maybe you’re planning a move to a new location?  Or introducing a new product? Or hiring a new staff member?  What does success look like in each of those situations?

We’ve been actively using and teaching visioning as a tool here at Zingerman’s for the past 25 years or so, and I am convinced that it has been fundamental to our success.  

If you’re already convinced that a vision is important for YOUR success as well and just want to get started, skip ahead to the How to Write a Vision of Success section of this blog post. If you need more information before you climb on the vision train, keep reading!

How exactly do we define a “vision”?  At Zingerman’s, a vision is a description, at a particular future point in time, of what success looks like—described with enough richness of detail that you’ll know when you’ve arrived—that is both inspiring and strategically sound.

The vision is where you want to end up.  It is NOT a strategic plan – although a strategic plan (or an action plan for a project) is important because it helps you figure out how you’re going to get to the finish line that is the vision.  But without a vision of what success looks like, I would argue that it is impossible to plan an effective course to get yourself (and your organization) there.  Ari Weinzweig (Zingerman’s co-founding partner and CEO) uses the analogy of using GPS software – it can’t give you a route if you do not give it your desired destination.

We believe that to be effective, a vision needs to be:

  •     – Inspiring
  •     – Strategically sound
  •     – Documented
  •     – Communicated

First and foremost, visions need to be inspiring, because otherwise – who cares?  It takes a lot of work to make something truly special happen, and when people are inspired they are more creative and engaged. On the other hand, if where you want to go isn’t strategically sound (we’ll increase sales 400% and only have the store open 2 hours a day) that doesn’t work either.  There is a creative tension between “inspiring” and “strategically sound” and finding the right balance isn’t black and white. But if you solicit feedback on your vision from those whose opinions you respect as well as those you want to inspire, you will get input that helps you figure this out. 

Documenting the vision is important so that you put a stake in the ground – and so that you can refer back to it again and again.  Documentation also makes it much easier to share the vision – and communicating the vision is essential because you want and need the support of others to make it happen.  Remember – as we define it at Zingerman’s, your vision is the “what” and the strategic plan is the “how.” Sharing the “what” not only helps others in the organization know where you are all heading, but provides the measure against which to evaluate various strategies (“hows”) and determine which will be most efficient and effective.

What’s the right length of time to choose for your vision?  I’d say that depends. Obviously, the timeframe for most projects will be shorter than a long-term vision for a business.   A vision for the end of a shift is only a few hours out. ZingTrain once worked with a nature conservancy whose vision was for 100 years in the future.  The key is to get far enough out that you can imagine the possibilities, not get stuck in all of the current problems.  

Visioning isn’t magic. The current problems still exist.  But getting decision-makers to agree on what a successful future would look like when those problems are resolved or minimized can generate positive energy that provides an impetus to face those problems in a more productive way.

Okay – so how do you do it? 

How to Write a Vision of Success

There are a number of ways to generate the first draft of an organizational vision, and some of the ones we like best are outlined below.  STOP!  Before starting any of these approaches, decide and communicate who has the final decision regarding what will/will not be included in the vision. 

One of the biggest sources of dissatisfaction we’ve encountered when helping an organization develop a long-term vision happens when participants in the process aren’t clear about who gets the last word.  There is often confusion between a Consultative Decision (actively seeking and considering input from a variety of sources but the leader/leadership team has the final say) and a Consensus Decision (everyone involved has to be in agreement in order to move forward). Most organizations, including ours, that write long-term company visions use a Consultative decision style.

In our experience, most people are a-okay with the idea that the organization’s founder or the leadership team or the board of directors will have the final say on what’s in the vision.  It is important to get that clear upfront, though, because when people are asked to share their hopes and dreams, they become more invested in the outcome (this is a GOOD problem and one of the reasons to involve as many people as you can in the development of your vision).  When people are invested, what ends up in the vision matters to them. So it’s important to explain why certain suggestions end up in the final draft and why others don’t.

The nuts and bolts of creating a vision are:

  • – First draft (usually really rough)
  • – Several rounds of sharing, feedback, rewriting
  • – Final polishing of language and a leadership thumbs up
  • – Roll-out, including a way to share with new hires as they come on board
  • – Develop action plans and timelines to start making it happen

As I said above, there are several ways to generate that rough first draft.  Here are the ones we have used most often within Zingerman’s and with ZingTrain clients:

  1. 1. A single leader creates the first draft.  We recommend using the Hot Pen technique.
  2. 2. Multiple leaders work together to create the first draft.  We recommend using the Hot Pen technique individually, then comparing drafts to find commonalities and areas that need further discussion.
  3. 3. A group of people from across the organization create the first draft together.  We recommend small group brainstorms to develop vision themes or “headlines” and then fleshing out each of those themes into a narrative.

There are, of course, pros and cons to each of these options.  All other things being equal (which they rarely are), the single leader option (option #1) goes fastest but generates less organizational buy-in, and the group of people option (option #3) takes the longest but results in an organizational vision for which staff at all levels feel a higher level of investment.

Regardless of which option is used to create the first draft, there is value in getting input from throughout the organization and taking that input into consideration when developing subsequent drafts.  We recommend asking for feedback by asking these four questions:

  • What do you find most compelling?
  • – What isn’t clear/needs more fleshing out?
  • – What is missing?
  • – Anything that should come out? Why?

Ready to get started and feeling that you’ve got all the info you need?

Go for it!  And if you’d like feedback on your first draft, email us a copy ([email protected]) and we’ll gladly read it over and share our answers to those four questions above.

Wanting to get started and feeling the need for some additional help?

For the nuts and bolts of writing a first draft using Hot Pen, it’s worth reading “An 8-Step Recipe for Writing a Vision of Greatness”—which is available as a pamphlet or as a chapter in Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 1: Building a Great Business.  Many leaders who want to create the first draft vision on their own choose this route.

For the opportunity to create your first draft in a structured, supportive and yet informal environment, join us for an upcoming in-person, 2-day Creating a Vision of Greatness seminar here in Ann Arbor.  This is an especially good option when you have a handful of leaders who want to create the first draft together, because the seminar design will give you both the space to write a draft on your own and the opportunity to work as a group to identify areas of alignment and misalignment.

If you want to get a broader group involved from the get-go, let us design a private workshop that is personalized to your organization—using our consistently successful process of generating images of success, identifying themes and crafting an inspiring, strategically sound narrative. 

However you decide to start developing your organization’s vision—DO start!  

If you need an extra nudge, here’s what we heard from our friend and long-time client Ian Gurfield, founder of Ian’s Pizza in Madison, WI, in an email he sent earlier this year, as he was working on his company’s 2030 vision (having come close to the end of their 2020 vision):

“I’m currently working on the fifth draft and really like how things are coming together.  Reading what I’ve written, I get excited. And others do too (this part is key). I’ve also come to enjoy the process.   I enjoy teaching our staff visioning work. I enjoy reading other people’s visions. And I even enjoy the struggle of writing lousy drafts. Go figure.  I can’t imagine where we would be if I hadn’t provided our organization with a clear and inspiring long-term vision.  Hands down, it’s the single most important thing I’ve done as a leader . . .”