How to Write a Compelling Digital Vision

Erika Flora
Written by Erika Flora

Digital Technology Opportunities and Why True Transformation is Needed

Emerging technologies have opened up a new world in terms of how we interact with our customers and address their needs; and remaining relevant and valuable to our customers in this digital world forces us to work in new and different ways. These modern approaches often drive dramatic, internal changes as well as true digital transformation.

“When a snake sheds its skin, it changes; when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it transforms.”

– SAP’s Business Transformation Academy

This type of organizational transformation requires not only a new way of thinking and working for everyone, but it also drives us to change processes and systems that may have once worked well. We may have to move away from what made us successful in the past and replace those ways of working with new processes, practices, systems, skills, and even people. Capgemini calls it a “tectonic shift.” It’s a scary prospect for everyone, including us as leaders. This is where having a well-crafted, compelling digital vision can help in overcoming this fear and driving action. Let’s discuss what a digital vision is (and is not), how to know if you’ve created one that’s compelling, and some recommendations on engaging your organization to bring the vision to life.

What a Digital Vision Is and How is it Different from a Mission?

Let’s start with what a digital vision is not. It’s not a mission statement. Our mission defines what we’re about, what business we’re in, and essentially why we exist as an organization. A solid mission statement is absolutely critical; and if you don’t have one that’s well-defined and communicated throughout the organization and to your customers, make sure to do that and tie your digital vision back to it. Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on the “Golden Circle” and book entitled Start with Why are worthwhile resources on mission statements.

A digital vision, however, is different. It’s forward-looking and defines “who we want to become” as an organization in light of emerging technologies. It’s the future-state picture of what problems we will solve for our customers, how our customers will interact with our products and services, and what our people, their skills, and our overall company will look like. Moving to a new, digital way of working takes the effort of leaders in creating a digital vision. A digital vision should paint a compelling picture for the transformation, and it should foster understanding at all levels of the organization. This will empower our teams to help us successfully create the new reality we envision.

A visionary leader is a person who steps out and creates a clear picture of a positive future-state.

– Skip Prichard

What Should be Included in The Digital Vision?

A digital vision should also be based on a deep understanding of our customers and how emerging technologies enable us to solve problems. With that said, the vision itself should be straightforward, understandable, and unique to the organization. Here’s an example of a digital vision from the CEO of Burberry:

“[Our] vision was to be the first company to be fully digital end-to-end. The [resulting] experience would be that a customer will have access to Burberry across all devices, anywhere in the world.”

– Angela Ahrendts

The Harvard Business Review Press’ publication on “Leading Digital” provides a great piece of advice: Make sure your vision focuses on the organization, not on the technology. It argues, “Technology can remove obstacles and extend your capabilities, but it is not an end in and of itself. Focus on how you can enhance the experience of your customers, streamline your operations, or transform your business models.” In other words, your digital vision should describe the digital position you hope to achieve.

How Do I Make Sure My Digital Vision is Compelling?

There’s no single formula for creating a great vision, and every organization’s digital vision is going to be different. For example, in this CIO.com article, George Westerman finds that, “Nike doesn’t just want to sell you things to wear. It wants to be part of your life. Boeing envisions being the center of a digital airline, not just selling airplanes and parts.” There are, however, characteristics that great digital visions have in common.

You can use the following questions as a simple checklist in determining whether your digital vision is on the right track:

  • Is it vivid and clear? Does it conjure a picture in people’s minds of the future-state?
  • Does it “tell a story” including possible challenges the organization may face? Is it inspiring?
  • Does it outline intent and outcome, essentially the “what” and the “why,” and leave room for others in the organization to determine the “how”?

You want to make sure your vision is as specific and concrete as necessary for people to be able to wrap their minds around it and work to make it happen.

“Every organization is a story, and every employee wants to feel like an important part of that story.”

– Skip Prichard

A great digital vision tells a story. Dan Ciampa from MIT Sloan says it this way: “Leaders should start by asking themselves: What will people see, hear, and feel once the changes have been achieved?” If people can picture the “new reality” and it inspires action, you have a great digital vision.

Examples of Not-So-Great Visions and Testing Your Message

Bad digital visions abound, you’ve likely worked for organizations with less-than-great visions at some point in your career. Something along the lines of, “Our vision is to become a premier, agile provider of [X].” Honestly, who even cares? If the vision is not specific, unique, and moving, it’s not yet ready to bring to your organization. Keep working at it. Further, financial outcomes by themselves do not cut it. Dig deeper and really illustrate what this transformation means for your organization and your customers. The best way to determine whether you’ve got a great vision is to test it out with a few people in your organization and get their honest feedback.

We learned this lesson the hard way when creating a vision for Beyond20 a few years ago. Our leadership team developed a strategy and figured out that, in order to deliver new, digital products and services to our customers, we needed to hit X million dollars in revenue that year. We were excited about it until we brought it to a few of our teams and were met with blank stares. No one cared. Luckily, we pivoted quickly and phrased our vision as a story that included an antagonist (the #1 industry leader) with us as the protagonist, and eyes started to light up. We had a clear vision of what kind of organization we wanted to be by the end of the year and defined the “war” we wanted to win. Our teams came up with the individual “battles” that needed to be won and we defined “Wildly Important Goals” (WIGs) that needed to be accomplished every week (one small chunk of work that could be accomplished each week by everyone in support of our high-level vision). Every Friday, teams met to discuss their WIGs, and by the end of the year, we had taken the #1 spot.

One other useful thing to think about is to make your digital vision time bound. For example, Pages Jaune (the French Yellow Pages), as part of articulating their digital vision, explained when they wanted to accomplish it. Otherwise, their vision may have seemed nebulous and faddish. See an excerpt from David Crouch’s blog article on parallel execution models for digital transformations below:

Around 2009, Pages Jaune was the market leader of the French Yellow Pages industry. The only problem was that the industry was crumbling . . . the fact was that nobody wanted to thumb through a thick paper phone book when they could find even better information online. As consumers started to use printed Yellow Pages to prop open windows on warm Paris Junes, Pages Jaune print revenues plummeted by more than 10% year over year. The new CEO, Jean-Pierre Remy initially struggled to sell a digital transformation to employees. After all, Pages Jaune was the industry leader, had been successful for most of its history, and had survived other technological and industry shake-ups. Mr. Remy understood that printing paper directories was not Pages Jaune’s forte. Instead, their strength was the ability to connect businesses to local consumers.

Remy boldly and unequivocally declared the old business model of printed books dead. His goal was to have digital revenue account for more than 75% within five years (at the time, it accounted for less than 30%). He also put a freeze on investment in the print directory business model (unless absolutely necessary for survival) during the transition. Remy managed to pull off his great tour de force within a little over four years as digital revenues replaced the losses from the print side of the business. In 2015, Pages Jaunes reported revenue growth for the first time in years.

How to Engage the Organization with a Digital Vision

Once you craft a digital vision, communicating it to the organization should be done often and in a variety of ways. We, as leaders, can’t just share it with people once and expect the vision to be remembered perfectly and implemented immediately. Further, the vision may even sound a little crazy to people the first time they here it, as it’s never been done by this (or any) organization before. The digital vision must become a mantra that is repeated at every chance possible. I really like how Skip Prichard states it in this article, “make the messaging around the vision as clear as a well-played music note.” Everyone, though they are on different teams and are playing completely different “instruments,” should be playing from the same “sheet of music” and contributing to the same overall song on behalf of your customers. Everyone needs to understand their role within the larger picture and understand how they are contributing to the end result.

Evolving the Digital Vision Over Time

Lastly, a great digital vision will set the overall guidelines (what an organization will and will not do in support of the vision); and it will give teams flexibility to create, innovate, and build on the vision’s foundation. As leaders, we need to create conditions within the organization that allow our teams the flexibility to successfully act on the vision, knowing that the vision will change and evolve over time as we learn more. There’s no “one way” or single path to success; and we must allow our teams to discover options to get to an effective result. Nigel Fenwick from Forrester provides great advice on implementing a digital vision, namely to “illustrate what customers will value in the future, show how your relationship with the customer will change, and make your vision dynamic enough to change with customer expectations.”

Originally published April 04 2020, updated September 09 2022
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