Andrew Carton and Brian Lucas recently published an Adminstrative Science Quarterly paper titled, “How Can Leaders Overcome the Blurry Vision Bias? Identifying an antidote to the Paradox of Vision Communication.” They explore how leaders often craft vision statements poorly, resulting in a lack of understanding and buy-in on the part of their followers. Carton recently summarized the key point of their research in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton. He describes what they call the "blurry vision bias" that afflicts many leaders:
The blurry vision bias is the tendency for most people — including leaders — to think abstractly rather than concretely about the distant future. Leaders might invoke vagaries such as “we aim to impact the world” rather than vivid images like “bring smiles to customers’ faces.” Therefore, most visions are, ironically, not very visionary.
Why does this bias exist? First off, we don’t have direct experience with the future for a pretty self-evident reason: It hasn’t happened yet! So, we tend to speculate about it in very broad, general terms. Although it is useful to think about the future in general terms because it allows for flexibility, the problem is that when we communicate this generality and vagueness to other people, it often has some unfortunate consequences: It is not very motivating because it is not emotionally appealing, and it stifles coordination because different employees have a different understanding of what we aspire to achieve in the future.
I've definitely witnessed blurry visions in many organizations, and they definitely result in strategy execution problems. One thing that I often remind leaders is that they have to test for understanding and alignment in multiple ways at multiple levels of the organization. They must try to do so informally. They have to go out into the organization and see how people have interpreted and understood what they have tried to communicate. To do so, leaders can't ask leading questions or pose inquiries that are not likely to elicit honest responses. In other words, they can't ask: "Does our vision statement make sense to you? Do you agree with our vision statement?" Instead, leaders need to ask open-ended questions that simply ask people to reflect on what they have come to perceive and understand about the direction of the organization. In so doing, leaders can discover if a lack of alignment, buy-in, and shared understanding exists.