In 1994 Jim Collins and Jerry Porras released their seminal book, “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.” The book outlined their extensive research on what makes a “visionary” company and how being visionary impacts the bottom line of the business. Twenty-five years after the book’s initial release, many organizations have tried to apply the insights to their own companies, with varying results.
In the book, he outlines the four critical components of a vision:
- Core Purpose — which defines “why” the organization exists.
- Core Values — which define the consistent guiding principles that govern behavior.
- Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG) — the bold, long-term goal that will catalyze the entire organization.
- Vivid Description — a detailed, specific explanation of what it will look like to achieve the BHAG.
In the years since the book’s release, many companies have tried to set themselves up on their own visionary paths. You can search the websites of most companies in the industry and find at least mention of Core Values and, occasionally, a Core Purpose. Three years ago, FMI looked at the Top 100 ENR Contractors’ websites to see how many had visible and easily accessible Core Purposes and Core Values. Our research found that:
- 80% had Core Values listed
- 20% had a Core Purpose listed
- 16% had both a Core Purpose and Core Values
Of the 80% who had Core Values listed, the most common values highlighted were:
- 66% featured Ethics/Integrity
- 53% featured Safety
- 28% featured Quality and Craft
- 21% featured Excellence
As Collins highlighted in his book, a company’s vision is not meant to be a differentiator. There’s no harm in sharing the same values as another organization, as long as those values are inherently true about your company. Values are not meant to be aspirational.
Over the last decade, FMI has helped dozens of companies clarify their visions. This clarification alone, however, does not equate to companies who are truly visionary. It is only the first step in the process. FMI worked with a large construction management firm where the leaders believed they “had this vision thing dialed in.” They pointed to their Core Values, which were displayed prominently on the website, on well-designed posters around the office, and even on laminated cards employees kept in their pockets.
As we interviewed the firm’s leaders, we heard a very different story. When asked about the values, very few employees could name all six of them. When asked how they use the values on a daily basis, most people couldn’t come up with a single example. When asked how they worked to help the organization achieve its long-term BHAG, people had no idea—they were focused only on their daily tasks. Far too many companies are similar to this one—they “have” a vision but aren’t visionary.
Having a clear vision is important, but if it’s just words on a website or on posters around the office and the job sites, it’s useless. Without the effort to instill the vision in every aspect of the organization, the words themselves are nearly meaningless. This is not to discount the importance of clarifying your vision. Organizations need to understand what aspects of their culture they will preserve and protect no matter what, as well as a clear path forward that gives them direction amid so much uncertainty and change.
However, what matters most is what happens after the vision is clarified. Embedding the vision into an organization takes thought, hard work, discipline and focus on small and large actions once vision is codified. One midsized general contractor on the East Coast works to embed its vision by:
- Including vision in the hiring process, asking specific questions to evaluate whether candidates align with the purpose and values.
- Including vision in the onboarding process so that all new hires are educated on the vision and deeply understand how to align with it daily.
- Frequently communicating the vision to the whole organization, especially in highlighting specific examples of people who have lived out the purpose and values.
- Including the vision in annual performance evaluations, providing detailed feedback on how well each employee aligns with the vision, and establishing next steps to help him or her improve.
- Aligning the organization’s strategic initiatives with the long-term BHAG and communicating progress updates to the entire organization.
As Collins learned from his initial research, there are many benefits to having a visionary organization. In E&C today, visionary companies have an easier time attracting, retaining and developing top talent. They also have a clearer sense of the type of clients and the type of projects that align with their companies, which tends to result in more successful projects. Because they have a clear long-term direction, they suffer fewer distractions and wasted efforts. Creating a truly visionary company is difficult, which is why so few make it there. However, the benefits are many.
Whether your organization has a completely unclear vision, or whether you have some of the elements in place but haven’t arrived at “visionary” status, it’s worth considering your next move. In times of uncertainty and complexity, leaders and companies that have a clear vision that all employees can see, feel and align with will have an advantage over those that are unwilling to invest the time and energy to embed the vision into every aspect of their companies.