Nearly 60 years ago, President John F. Kennedy famously challenged NASA to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. That vision galvanized thousands of employees with vastly different roles—from astronauts to cleaning-crew members—around the common goal of a lunar landing. According to Wharton management professor Andrew Carton, the effectiveness of that message lay in the type of wording used: It was visually concrete. If Kennedy had said, “Let’s aim to be number one in the space race,” would the results have been different? Perhaps so.

Carton, along with Brian J. Lucas from Cornell University, recently looked at how leaders craft vision statements—and, specifically, what makes some more compelling than others—in a paper published in the Academy of Management Journal titled, “How Can Leaders Overcome the Blurry Vision Bias? Identifying an Antidote to the Paradox of Vision Communication.” The more concrete a vision statement is, the more likely it will inspire employees, the authors found. Even so, research has shown that leaders often take the opposite approach, creating vision statements laden with abstract terms. This tendency is what the authors call the “blurry vision bias.” As a result, says Carton, “Most visions are, ironically, not very visionary.”

The phenomenon has a simple explanation, Carton and Lucas write: “People tend to think abstractly as they ponder the distant future.” In other words, when imagining what effect their product or service may have in the real world, leaders emphasize what the authors call the abstract “meaning-based cognitive system” and underutilize the “experience-based cognitive system.” Says Carton: “Basically, it’s the difference between ‘Our goal is to make you happy’ and ‘Our aim is to put a smile on your face.’”

Although thinking about the future in general terms allows for flexibility, it becomes problematic when leaders communicate generality and vagueness to others. “It’s not very motivating because it’s not emotionally appealing, and it stifles coordination because different employees have a different understanding of what we aspire to achieve in the future,” Carton says.

But which techniques, if any, can leaders use to overcome this tendency? It isn’t enough to be armed with the knowledge that visual imagery makes messages more powerful, the researchers found. To simulate the world in graphic terms, the researchers suggest using “mental time travel,” a technique in which people psychologically project forward and look at the world around them. “How has the world changed now that people are impacted by the product or service that you were responsible for creating?” Carton asks. “Paint a vivid picture of that day in the future when all of your hard work will bear fruit.”


Published as “Crafting Vision Statements That Inspire” in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of  Wharton Magazine.