Vision… what is it?
I think it's the single unifying idea that should bind together all your efforts, all your work and that you should measure your ideas against. It needs to be infectous, exciting, and motivating. It needs to be bigger than you, bigger than your team, and something that seems like it might be within reach.
When people are trying to found a company, they think of business plans, they think of business cards, they think of getting a release out, but they seem to forget about this simple aspect:
What do you want to be?
The highly esteemed Guy Kawasaki gets this and it's one of the major themes in his Art of the Start. Early on, he discusses and pounds on the idea of a Mantra and how it's different than a mission statement. The mission statement has all of the Scrabble-winning words you love to hate. A Mantra is a simple few word phrase that distills what the mission actually means. My favorite from the book is the US Air Force. Their mission is “To defend the United States and protect its interests through superior aerospace power”. The Mantra Guy pulls from that “Kick buss in air and space”. How much clearer can you get?
Alright, so how are a Vision and a Mantra different?
A Vision for the USAF might be: “To have the best, top notch people working with the leading edge aircraft for the ability respond to anywhere in the world to assist our allies and destroy our enemies.” The Vision is for the man or woman actually standing on the front lines, making the day to day decisions within the organization, and not trying to win the “best mission statement” award. A Vision gives everyone a set of guiding principles to work for and measure ideas, projects, and their individual work against.
“But Keith, I'm only a mISV and I don't need a Vision….”
Maybe you're right, but let me tell you what happens without a Vision. My wife has been working for an organization for a couple years now. She's passionate about it, experienced, well-formed, and works with many people with the same qualities. Unfortunately, after quite a few management shifts, no one has a plan, no one has goals, and no one in authority has said “We will be X”. Instead, it turns into a battle of the wills where somebody wants things their way and someone else wants them differently. There is no standard to judge things by and the leadership is too fragmented to do it either. By not having this Vision, they're doing themselves massive harm because no one is pushing towards the same goals, no one knows why someone else is doing something, and most importantly, they're not experiencing the satisfaction from getting closer to the Vision. This sort of flailing about simply burns out the most dedicated, motivated and often best-skilled people first because their time is being wasted.
Having a Vision frees you from the tedium of answering dumb questions – whether they're your questions or not. If the task, project, idea, etc does not fit within your Vision or support the pieces of your Vision, either it is not worthwhile to you or your Vision must change. It frees you up to think at a different level because many of the other things sort themselves out. It becomes an auto-pilot to handle things when your brain needs to be elsewhere. Do you think the USAF cares about a new tank design or a particular type of battle fatigues? Only if it lets them do their job better…
Within CaseySoftware, we've gone through this exercise a few times – normally every 6 months – and it's starting to change… and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. Every time it changes, I write down the new one and post it on my full year calendar. Just like any set of requirements, any goal, any point on a map, it needs to be fixed while you're pushing towards it. It's not immutable and it can change, but it should only change when you actively make the decision to do so.