It's the rage these days for companies to craft eloquent vision statements
describing their enduring goals and principles. Unfortunately, the way many
firms operate bears no resemblance to these high-sounding pronouncements. Some
companies, however, have truly made a habit of living their vision statements.
In their new book, Built to Last (Harper Business), Stanford professors James
Collins and Jerry Porras analyze several such companies.
The most interesting part of this book is the way the authors explode the myths that surround "visionary companies." Instead, they present the real factors underling the success that these companies have long enjoyed:
1. Few visionary companies begin life with a great idea. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard had no clear idea beyond a desire to work together to start a company in the broad field of electronic engineering.
2. A charismatic leader is absolutely not required. Few people outside the company have heard of 3M's William McKnight, though he guided that company's growth for 52 years.
3. Maximizing shareholder wealth has not been the driving force or primary objective of most visionary companies. Merck keeps defining its business success as "victory over disease and help for mankind."
4. There is no "right" set of core values. Some companies focus on service to customers, others on job fulfillment for employees, still others on quality products. The crucial point is how deeply a company lives its ideology.
5. Core values in a visionary company remain constant, even though these firms constantly strive for progress.
6. For those who do not buy into a visionary company's goals and culture, work life can be very unhappy. Example: You can't be a true "Motorolan" unless you join the company's relentless crusade for quality.
7. Such companies make some of their best moves by experimentation, trial and error--and sometimes by pure accident. Consider 3M's history of developing a technology first--then finding a market for it.
8. In most cases, home-grown management rules at visionary companies.
9. Beating the competition comes not as the primary goal but as a residual result of an ongoing internal drive for improvement.
10. These companies do not brutalize themselves by what the authors call "the Tyranny of the OR"--such as saying that they have to be either dedicated to making money OR adhering to important values.
These qualities of America's most successful companies offer some interesting benchmarks as we watch our own companies fashion vision statements. The real message: A firm's commitment to live its principles is far more important than the words of a plaque on the wall.