When meaning matters

In my time at ABB the official company language (according to our CEO, Goran Lindahl) was “poor English”. Native speakers cut slack for those less proficient and many of us were grateful that we didn’t have to learn several languages in order to get the work done. A side effect of English as the lingua franca in the business world is that certain important distinction in meanings get blurred or lost. Or as Lewis Carroll put it in Alice in Wonderland:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less”.

I’ve recently been involved in reviewing the respective strategies of two fast-growing companies. Both companies have a vision. The staff in Company A understand and identify with the vision and know how they can contribute to reaching it. The staff in Company B understand but neither identify with it nor are they sure what their contribution is. Both companies have high quality staff. How can this come about?

One possible answer lies in their respective visions. To my understanding a vision evokes a future state — how the world could look. It has an emotional component and engages people on many levels. A goal, on the other hand, is a way of recognising that (part of) the vision has been realised.

A simple analogy: Heidelberg is a beautiful city, not so far away. When I picture the old city and the castle, the banks of the Neckar, the lively restaurants and bars, I can imagine spending a weekend there. I have a vision of what it would be like. If I drive there and pass the yellow sign at the city entrance with the word Heidelberg printed on it, I know I’ve reached the city. So the dream of the time there is the vision, the yellow sign is a goal to indicate that I’ve reached the vision.

Company B’s vision is simply — using this definition — a goal (in this case, a certain turnover and market position at particular date in the future). A good, clear goal; nonethless only a goal. What makes this goal worth reaching — the vision — remains unsaid. And the strategy remains unexecuted.

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