Why vision documents stink

At a talk yesterday I asked an audience of program managers how many of them had read a vision document. Most of the 100+ in the room raised their hands. I then asked how many had read a document they thought was good: about a dozen kept their hands up.

I’ve asked this question dozens of times and it’s rare to find people who’ve read one they thought was good. Most teams (or start-ups) have some kind of written charter, even if it’s just a beat up e-mail, for what the over-arching goals are supposed to be.

Why are they often so bad?

I have 3 theories:

  • They’re often written by committees. Five people get in a room and yield to mediocrity. Unless one talented person asserts him/herself as the lead author (e.g. Thomas Jefferson) the result is jargon happy, wishy washy, impenetrable tripe. You want a clear narrative, not a labyrinthine wishing well.
  • They’re not written to serve the reader. What purpose do these things serve? If the people writing it don’t know, odds are slim what the write will be of use to the people asked to read it. If the goal is to catalyze, motivate or clarfy, it should be easy for any vision author to check with readers to see if it’s working. But if they don’t ask, readers might be afraid to tell.
  • Author confuses hype with reality. A good vision document connects the future with the present, and gives tools to people to make faster decisions. All the hype and conjecture has a place, but it’s probably in the supporting materials, not in the directives or goals people are being asked to follow.

So why do you think vision documents and their ilk are often so painful reads? Politics? Cowardice? Lack of imagination? Labotomy? what?

9 Responses to “Why vision documents stink”

  1. Deb Dicken

    In my experience to date (about 15 years), project charters and vision scope documents are poorly written for two primary reasons:

    1) Unclear vision for the project: The contributors actually don’t know what they’re trying to build. To be more specific, they don’t have a deep enough understanding of the nature of the problem they are trying to solve and as a result cannot enumerate the ways in which the project will solve the problem. Sometimes this is caused by politics – the stakeholders have competing goals and have not agreed before the v/s was written. This commonly results in a bloated, convoluted document.

    Other times this is because of a lack of commitment (or worse yet, lack of involvement) from stakeholders at the appropriate level of experience and/or responsibilty in the organization. This leaves the author in a position to take guesses and hope for the best.

    2) Lack of understanding: The contributors and authors of the v/s don’t actually know what the document is for, they just know (perhaps from reading a book or attending some presentation) that they have to create one.

    Combine both 1 and 2 and you end up with some really expensive toilet paper!

  2. David

    I’m with Deb but there’s more. To write a good vision means someone has to know how to write things well.

    And they also have to be in touch with enough people in the trenches to understand how their senior/VP level view of the world translates into the trench view.

    Few people have all of these things.

  3. Joe

    I agree with much of what has been said and want to add two points of my own, though one is, in many ways, redundant;

    1) Few people can write well.

    2) Most managers and leaders have no vision [in a pragmatic business sense.]

    That doesn’t mean they can’t do the job at hand, many can do that quite well, or that they don’t have ideas on where to take their company and/or product, many have that and their ideas can be brilliant; but what few have is a real vision of what their business really needs and how their ideas will actually move their business forward.

    At my most recent company, the “visionaries” have created a spectacular looking demo. To bad it has nothing to do with where the company really needs to go (and would cannibalize a very profitable, even if boring, part of the company.) Worse, they are absolutely clueless as to how much it would really cost to implement their “vision.” (And it’s a lot.)

  4. Scott (admin)

    Sometimes people use the word vision to mean different things. I meant it in terms of “here’s our plan for the next X months”. But a vision can also be a look into the distant future, as in “here’s our vision prototype for what our product will look like 5 years from now”. The former is a kind of plan, the later is a experiment. Both are fine as long as no one is confusing one for the other.

    Regarding Joe’s #2 point: I think many managers feel the pressure for a vision to be grand and radical – that somehow a vision is obligated to rethink the world, which isn’t true. A good vision simply creates a path to progress – it doesn’t have to be radical.

    I’ve seen more teams get more motivated over simple, clear ideas that they believe in, than big fancy overaching radical thinking that’s too abstract for them to understand, much less have confidence in.

    So good visions come from people who have the confidence to have seemingly ordinary visions. It’s less about ego (“Look at how big my vision is!”) and more about leading a team (“Lets go this way”).

    On cost: Sometimes it makes sense to remove a constrant when exploring or thinking about the future. That opening of possibilities may lead to ideas that can be applied in unexpected ways: perhaps it will motivate a new way to look at costs, or push people to rethink their expenses in ways they would not have otherwise. With a good prototype that’s too expensive to build, parts of it might be cheap enough to apply to the next version, or may influence the thinking of whoever is making the next version.

  5. ux-admin

    Guys! You’re beating around the bush in a usual managerial style.

    Managers are pragmatists. Most of them anyway. So if you’re a pragrmatist, forget about being a visionary. To be a visionary, you have to go out ona limb; and most managers are too comfy in their chairs to risk that.

    “The network is the computer.”

    That’s a vision. In one sentence. No fancy documents. And it’s a perfect example of what a vision is:

    a look into the future, and a correct one.

    The Sun guys saw the future: they saw where the Informatics field is going to be 30 years from (25 years ago). And they were right.

    That’s a vision. Everything else is, well, you’re fired! At least as a visionary.

  6. Nitin Reddy Katkam

    Most people writing the vision document think of themselves as salesmen and look at the vision document as a chance to sell the product.

    A vision document should aim to deliver information about how the product differentiates itself from the competition, rather than help with a sales pitch.



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