Have you ever heard a clean energy company claim their vision is to “save the planet!”? I have. Many times. While “saving the planet” is shorthand for environmental action to combat human-caused climate change, the phrase does not make a good company vision.
Breaking down why not, let’s start with a definition of what a vision is. A vision is a portrait of the future as you or your company wants it to be. A good vision will be larger than one person, while also allowing individuals to see themselves as part of that vision. A vision may or may not be reachable in the lifetime of said company, but always gives those in the company something to strive towards. An organization can ask themselves if a specific action gets them closer or further away from the vision.
“Save the planet” doesn’t fit the bill. It is too vague to paint a picture for people. The phrase does not give an organization any way to determine if they are achieving their vision. Unless you are a crew of a spaceship standing between the Earth and an asteroid hurtling towards the planet, defining the point at which the planet is saved is nebulous at best.
I see it often in this industry. Many organizations who originated as solar or energy storage companies started to “save the planet” in some way. Of course, making money is awesome, but most founder stories have some element of environmentalism in this space. Without a deliberate exercise, this often leads to an implied vision that has never been fully defined. When companies are smaller, an implied vision may serve. Hires are only a step or two removed from leadership, and it is easy to keep to the path of that vision.
However, when companies start growing a shift occurs. The implied vision is diluted or lost completely. When a vision is lost, the default plan of action turns to making money. Again, making money is excellent. I enjoy making money. Yet all for-profit businesses have revenue and profit goals. These goals do not set a company apart or give individuals and groups something to strive for, pushing innovation. It’s the point at which the race to the lowest price begins.
What Makes a Good Vision
You may be asking at this point, “What makes a good vision?” Let’s start with examples for clean energy companies.
- We are building a world where every person has access to affordable, clean energy.
- We are striving for the day when every piece of our energy system has a net positive impact on our environment.
- We are working toward the day when everyone is in charge of their own energy.
Three different clean energy companies, three different visions. Yet they all:
1. Tell a story of how they want the world to look; how the world could be better.
2. Are larger than one individual while giving the reader room to imagine themselves as part of this effort.
3. Have a measurable point at which those buying into the vision can say, “yes, we’re here.”
4. Are broader than a specific product or service yet allow for individuals to see how the company product or service fits into realizing that vision.
These three example visions will lead to each company making different decisions in order to achieve their vision.
Creating a Brand Vision
Creating a vision statement can be a lot of fun yet takes work. It is not just selfishly that I recommend bringing in an outside facilitator. As David C. Baker states in his books, “You can’t read the label from the inside of the jar.” With that in mind, here are some tips if you want to take on creating a vision internally.
Unless you are a sole proprietor, involve more than yourself. Ideally at least five people. For medium+ companies, shoot for 15 or more people that can be broken into groups. Smaller companies may want to involve the whole team.
Ultimately, your leadership team will need to champion this vision. It must be a vision they can get behind and believe in. It also needs to be a vision that can survive beyond a single champion.
Spend time in a room together. In person, if possible. If that isn’t achievable, Zoom will work. Depending on personality, this can be vulnerable work. If your team does not already have established trust, this journey might be a bit rocky. If your group is larger, break into smaller groups for these first steps, coming back together for the fourth step.
Start with sharing moments when you each thought the company was at their best. Describing these moments will shine a light on actions that help make up the company culture. The most senior leader in the room should go last. Capture these moments on a flipboard (paper or electronic).
Next, have each person describe what got them into the industry in the first place. Again, capture these moments on a flipboard.
The third round is tougher to articulate. Share visions of the future. What do you imagine a future world could look like? What is one issue in the world that would be ideal if it were solved? It does not need to be a global issue. It could be local or personal.
If you broke into smaller groups, now is the time to get back together. Together, note similarities in action words, in reasons for getting into the industry, in visions for the future. Similarities and trends in topics will be there.
Now that you see the trends, use them to build a vision. This step can be tricky to avoid falling into the death by committee trap. Start with draft visions. This isn’t the time for editing. Get drafts out on “paper”.
Once several drafts are on “paper” ask what resonates for the group. What doesn’t? Consider combining visions until you get to the point that a vision resonates with more of the group than it doesn’t.
Finally, go back to the four criteria and ask if this vision:
- Tells a story of how the company wants the world to look; how the world could be better.
- Is larger than one individual while giving the individual room to imagine themselves as part of this effort.
- Has a measurable point at which those buying into the vision can say, “yes, we’re here.”
- Is broader than a specific product or service yet allows for your current company product or service to fit into realizing that vision.
If the answer is “yes”, then congratulations. You have a company vision. If not, then keep workshopping it until you get there.
A vision is only as good as its use. If your company goes through this work, only for your vision to end up collecting dust on some PowerPoint slide while you return to business as usual, then it was a wasted effort.
A vision should be a guide, a way to evaluate opportunities, a signpost for internal and external efforts.
Integrating your Brand Vision into Everyday Company Culture
Once a vision has been defined, it needs to be used. Like yoga, using your vision as a guide is a practice. You may not “get it right” for a while. Eventually the company vision will work its way into company culture.
How to put your vision into use? By developing a short set of questions that are asked around EVERY decision your company makes.
Let’s go back to the earlier sample visions to elaborate.
Company A’s vision states: Company A is building a world where every person has access to affordable, clean energy. Company A is a PV module manufacturer. Right now, their path to realizing that vision is to build solar panels.
To integrate their vision into the company, they have developed two questions to evaluate choices and make a decision in line with reaching their vision:
- Is this the best balance between cost-effective and sustainable? Or is there better?
- Does this open access or limit access?
Every employee applies these questions to the large and the small, to internal and external decisions. For example, Company A might ask these questions when looking at materials like their choice of module frame. Changing module frames would be a huge decision. But what if there were a more cost-effective, sustainable solution that would allow the module manufacturer to ramp up production? Guided by their vision and criteria questions, even though it might be difficult at first, they would change module frames.
What about internal company decisions? Company A might also be evaluating a new health benefit like expanding paid family leave. For the company itself, the choice to expand this benefit might initially be less cost-effective, yet it opens access. They decide to move forward with the benefit with the knowledge that it does not meet both criteria.
Evaluating against criteria questions is a practice, not a hard and fast line in the sand. Company A is making conscious decisions with the knowledge they’re working towards their vision, but it’s not a straight line.
Company B’s vision states: Company B is striving for the day when every piece of our energy system has a net positive impact on our environment.
Their evaluative questions would be different. They might be:
- Can we measure the carbon footprint of this decision?
- Is this regenerative or extractive?
Every company will arrive at a unique vision and set of criteria.
Initially, the organization’s goal will be to integrate their criteria questions into each employee’s decision-making process, from choosing paper at the office supply store to service/product offerings to charitable donations. Answers may not always show decisions “fit” the criteria. Again, the initial goal is to get into the habit of asking the questions.
Over time, your organization will move towards answering “yes” to your criteria more often than not. And “no” is with full understanding. Eventually, working towards your company vision will become ingrained into your organization’s culture.
It is at this point that your vision becomes a key tenant of your brand identity. It is the moment people point to the company and say, “they’re authentic.” Words and brand promise match vision and action.