You’ve planned ahead the best you can. In the past several years, you’ve identified up-and-coming younger talent to replace baby boomers as they retire from your board and executive team. As senior leadership grew to include both seasoned veterans and new members, the team set a bold and comprehensive new vision for the future.

Everyone in the room is fully bought in. The firm has a new point on the far horizon to which it can navigate. The leadership is excited to begin translating the vision into strategy and action, reshaping the firm to achieve its desired future state.

Too often, this is where it all goes wrong.

Without the right voice, even the best vision has slim chance of success. Members of the firm, lacking the right story, create their own inaccurate and negative ones. Rather than be inspired to pull together toward a common goal, practitioners and staff become confused and suspicious. Changes that should be evidence of progress toward a bright future instead become threats.

The most common issue is twofold:

1. Underestimating the importance of articulating and communicating the vision
2. Overlooking the complexity of the communication challenge

The answer to the first problem is conceptually simple, though it requires discipline to implement. It begins by embracing the idea that communication is as fundamental to the success of a vision as is the quality of the vision itself. From the beginning of the vision development process, the leadership team commits to investing the time, effort, and skill required to properly articulate and share the story of the firm’s future.

The second problem is a bit trickier. Solving it requires discernment between how a vision statement functions inside the firm and the role it plays outside in the marketplace. It also requires a sophisticated understanding of how to shape and deliver the firm’s story.

To better understand these issues and dynamics, let’s consider a hypothetical example. Imagine a firm that has spent nearly 40 years developing a deep and focused expertise in designing traditional retail environments. Innovation has been a longstanding cultural norm. The firm’s leaders and practitioners keep a keen eye on the future, developing perspectives on the rapidly changing way in which Americans search for, select and obtain goods. As a result, the firm has earned a strong reputation and grown to three locations within the Northeast U.S., where they do 80 percent of their work.

Committed to remaining on the forward edge of practice, the leaders of the firm developed the following core vision:

We will be the national leader in retail design through futures research, leveraged technology and the creation of extraordinary human experiences.

During the process of creating the vision statement, the firm’s leaders developed core ideas in the vision statement in greater detail. They discussed the future evolution of retail sales, ways in which “futures research” might show up in practice and how the firm might evolve to focus on creating experiences as well as spaces.

When the vision is given voice within the firm, it speaks to motivate and align leaders, practitioners and staff. It provides a powerful destination that all can aspire to reach—to be the most forward-thinking, tech-savvy firm whose retail design for retail stretches beyond traditional limits of space and into experiences.

Leaders in our hypothetical firm know that rolling out the vision is only the beginning. They are its continual cheerleaders. Whether they speak to groups or individuals within the firm, the leaders frame discussions of the future in terms of becoming the national leader in retail design. They evaluate each new initiative by the degree to which it helps the firm understand the future of shopping or create extraordinary human experiences. In this way, vision becomes a filter that ensures staff are aligned and the firm is making progress toward its desired state.

Taken as it is written, the firmwide vision is for the internal audience only. The language used and sentiments expressed can be inspiring when kept within the walls of the firm, but sound arrogant and presumptuous anywhere else.

The vision has an important role outside the firm as well, but it needs a different voice. Given the right external voice through marketing, the vision can be a powerful catalyst for gaining influence in the marketplace.

To do so, the vision must be translated into ideas and language that resonate with what the market wants and needs. The firm must also avoid an important pitfall: the Integrity Gap.

False expectations are the root of the Integrity Gap. Too often firms portray themselves in their marketing as who they wish to be, rather than who they are and what they can do today—often because of the powerful inspiration they feel from their own vision. In so doing, firms create an Integrity Gap between their promises and what they can currently deliver. When the inevitable delivery failure occurs, the resulting anger and disappointment in the market can have potentially disastrous effects on the firm’s brand.

While the vision is not the right source for market-facing language, it has another more important function—to become the foundation for expert insight that drives influence.

How does a firm develop the external voice of its vision? How does it use communication with the marketplace to become what it aspires to be?

For our example firm, achieving national dominance in retail design comes through demonstrating a combination of national design quality and leadership thinking that distinguishes it among competitors. In order to build market influence, our firm will want to build its voice around themes that align with its vision: the future of the retail marketplace, integration of technology with spaces, the power of extraordinary shopper experiences to give retailers a competitive advantage, and the like.

With persistence and focus, the firm will demonstrate the extraordinary value of its thinking. Its influence will grow as more prospective clients and stakeholders benefit from its point of view, opening up opportunities that propel it toward its desired state.

Positioning a firm for success in the future is more than simply developing vision. The vision also needs voice. To be effective, leaders must embrace the essential importance of communicating the vision and adapting to the complexities of the communication environment. The voice of vision, properly applied both inside and outside the firm, can be a powerful catalyst for a firm to achieve its highest goals.


Bob Fisher is principal and editor at large of DesignIntelligence.

This article is excerpted from the 4Q 2018 issue of DesignIntelligence Quarterly.