Vision and Strategic Plans: Who needs them?

by Jeff Hiatt


Is a vision and strategic plan something you should worry about? Or is this something only for an executive team or the top leaders of your organization? You can answer these questions yourself.

You need to have a vision and strategic plan for your organization if one of the following is true:

  • You have embarked on a initiative to produce breakthrough results for your organization, and you are on the team or the leader of the initiative.
  • Your organization is performing poorly in critical areas for business success (operating costs, customer satisfaction, quality of goods or services, etc.), and you have been ask to help work this issue.
  • You need to prioritize a limited amount of investment dollars between a variety of improvement initiatives (the organization can’t do everything).
  • You have been ask to set short and long-term goals for your organization in key performance areas.


In other words, most companies and organizations need a vision and strategic plan, but few have it. Moreover, some organizations think they have one and don’t. Consider the basic elements for a vision and strategic plan that can drive breakthrough improvements shown in the figure below. You might think about which of these elements you have in place in your organization.

Barriers to having a vision and strategic plan

If a vision and strategic plan are so important, then what are the barriers to creating them? In other words, what might be preventing your organization from having an actionable vision and strategic plan to drive breakthrough improvements?


In many cases awareness is a key issue. Work goes on day-by-day, and the urgent and pressing needs of today’s problems can be totaling absorbing. Isn’t it enough to just deal with the problems right in front of us, and take each day one at a time? Probably not. In fact, it may be the absence of a vision and plan that cause your organization to be so reactive, and spend a lot of time fire-fighting rather than proactively meeting the needs of your customers. The symptoms you can look for include:

– Many initiatives are underway, with much activity producing little results.

– Improvement initiatives seem to be unrelated, with each group doing their own thing.

– When it comes time to prioritize opportunities and allocate investment dollars, it is unclear how much money to give to who and what is the most important thing to work.

– It is hard to tell when you are successful – no roadmap exists to chart your progress.

– It is not apparent whether the current activities will take the organization where you need to go, because no one is quite sure where that is.

– You or your organization spend most of your time reacting to crisis.

If any of these statements ring true for you, you should be aware that a critical component is missing – a vision and strategic plan that meets the criteria set forth in the exercise above. In other words, you do not have an actionable vision and strategic direction that can drive breakthrough performance.


The second barrier to having a vision and strategic plan is the lack of desire to create one. Such a lack of motivation to do this work can come from lack of experience on how effective visions and plans can drive and energize an organization, or from previous experiences with weak “vision” exercises that have been unproductive.

Motivation is a difficult barrier to overcome. Motivation can stem from attraction — pulling others towards an approach or management practice like visioning and strategic planning, or from avoidance of pain — the need is driven out of major business failure or potential failure, either personally or as an organization. More often than not the latter is the driver. However, given the changing roles of managers to become both coaches and leaders, the critical leadership issue is how to lead from a position of strength based on a view of the future, and a plan for getting your organization there.


For teams that have the awareness that a vision and plan are absent and have the desire to create them, the next barrier is the know-how. What do you do first? Do you need a team? How do you select the team and who are the right players? How do I recognize a strong vision and strategic plan form a weak one? How do you gain executive sponsorship? How do you communicate to other employees about what you are doing such that they feel engaged and knowledgeable? How do you ensure alignment with customers and the direction for the business? Gaining this knowledge will be critical for your success in creating and sustaining your vision and plan.

Competency to Act

If the three elements above are met – awareness, desire and knowledge – does the team have the ability to act on this knowledge to create a vision and strategic plan. It is one thing to know the theory – and quite another to act on that theory to produce results. Consider sporting events. You may know how to play, but playing well and knowing how to play are not the same. Practice is a key requirement, and even with practice some play better than others. With the vision and planning process, the same is true. The team needs to have the competency to create a successful vision and strategic plan. This competency should be factored in when selecting your team and engaging consultants.

The Link to Major Business Change or Business Process Reengineering

A critical success factor for your change effort will be your vision, and how that vision contributes to the long term plan for your organization. Communicating a picture of this future state along with specific plans each step of the way is also fundamental element of change management. If I were forced to reduce the critical success factors for major change initiatives to only three, they would be: top management sponsorship, compelling vision of the future, and change management.

You also need to be able to connect your visions and plans with your measures of success. Your vision is the starting point for goal-setting, as reflected in the approach first used by the Japanese, called Hoshin Planning (from “Winning with Quality”, Wesner, Hiatt, Trimble, 1995).

Note in this process that your vision drives the planning process, and is the root of long-term and short-term objectives from which you can measure the success of your change initiative.


Organizations who want to stop fire fighting and bring alignment and coordination around their improvement initiatives require a vision and strategic plan. The first step to having one is to identify the barriers, and clarify the actions required to breakdown those barriers. For each barrier the remedy is different, and appropriately identifying those barriers is an important first step. In the cases of major business change initiatives, success or failure will hinge on the effectiveness and strength of the vision and strategic plan.

Next Steps

Depending on your role in the organization, you may want to consider the following steps:

Provide the short exercise at the beginning of this article to several associates on your team or in your organization at different levels. Begin to build awareness around the concepts of a vision and strategic plan, and create a need by connecting the absence of a vision and plan to real problems you face today (like the symptoms mentioned previously).

Through informal conversations or meetings determine which of the four areas discussed here are roadblocks to creating an actionable vision and plan to produce breakthrough performance:

  • awareness
  • desire
  • knowledge
  • competency to act

The remedy will vary depending on the category the roadblocks are in. What you have gained may not be the immediate solution, but rather a framework to have a conversation with your team or organization about this critical success factor for breakthrough business performance.

The next article in the series on visions and strategic planning will present a tested approach or methodology for creating a vision and strategic plan for your team.

Side-bar comment

Many times we encounter models for business improvement that are equally if not more useful for personal improvement. I believe this to be true of the change model used in this article to discuss visions and strategic planning. Take some example in your personal life that you have wanted to change but have been unsuccessful (either about yourself or about someone else). Then ask yourself where the breakdown is to achieve that change: awareness of the issue and how it impacts others, desire or motivation to do anything about it, knowledge of how to go about changing it, ability to act out the necessary steps, or sufficient reinforcement to hold the change in place. The power behind the framework is that the remedy is different depending on what the category is, and such a framework provides clarity around the issue so that progress can be made.