The Power of Visionary Business Goals

TED speaker and author of The Big Pivot, Andrew Winston is one of the leading & loudest voices globally on how business can navigate and profit from the world's biggest social and environmental challenges. In this article he considers the question: how do organizations design innovative, visionary goals that propel the business forward AND tackle the world's mega-challenges? 

Sam Walton once said, “High expectations are the key to everything.” An increasing number of companies — particularly in the auto industry — are heeding that call, setting aggressive, creative, and visionary goals that change their approach to business and how they relate to the wider world.

Consider Nissan’s “Vision Zero” which aims for “zero traffic accidents involving Nissan vehicles that inflict serious or fatal injuries,” according to COO Toshiyuki Shiga. A broad, seemingly impossible systemic goal like this might seem like a social responsibility or public relations strategy — and of course it has those elements. And I’m sure some corporate lawyers aren’t exactly thrilled, since it’s hardly only the car company’s issue – we all have an individual responsibility to drive safely, too. But Nissan is, I think, ignoring the risk-averse nature of our normal business culture and putting itself out there.

It’s brave. But it’s also very good for the business.

In order for Nissan to actually pursue the Vision Zero goal, the company is forced to think differently about innovation and product development, developing technologies that keep cars from hitting each other. But since there’s no way Nissan could address the goal solely through its products, it also propels creativity in marketing in order to change how all of us drive. The company’s “Red Thumb” campaign encourages people to wear a red band to remind them not to text and drive, and they’re using some star power, with Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine and the popular show The Voice to raise awareness.

Rethinking products and how you talk to your customers at the same time is systemic thinking at its best.

Nissan is not alone in setting big goals. My firm has collected 4,000 environmental and social targets set by the world’s largest 300 companies. A surprising number reach for deep changes in the world, going well beyond the expected and narrower kind of goals like “reduce energy use 10%.” Just within the auto and transportation industries, a few goals stand out:

  • Honda: Bring well-to-wheel CO2 emissions down to zero.
  • Deutsche Bahn: Achieve rail transport that is CO2-free and powered by renewables.
  • Maersk: Safely recycle all their ships at the end of their service life.

These systemic goals have enormous repercussions for the companies and their value chains. How can Honda influence the emissions profile of oil production or move away from oil burning vehicles entirely? How will trains run on renewables without some deep investment by utilities and European governments? What kind of reverse logistics and markets for recycled materials does Maersk need in place before it can recycle ships that are now larger than the Empire State Building?

These are meaty questions that go to the core of what these businesses do. And they take into account the stark realities of a world dealing with resource constraints, climate change, and other mega challenges. These are the kinds of goals that bring about a big pivot in how business runs.

Importantly, this pivot is not just about arbitrary visionary goals, but ones based on the reality of the challenges we face – that is, based on science. Ford Motor, for example, has used “science-based CO2 targets” to shape its product development plans for 10 years. The company has been developing vehicles that help the world meet its carbon reduction goals, including most prominently the 2015 F-150 truck. Ford made this vehicle, its top-selling brand, 700 pounds lighter by shifting from steel to aluminum. The Automotive Science Group just named the F-150 the best large truck on environmental and economic performance (a lighter truck also saves the driver money on fuel).

Even tactical operational goals can be transformative. GM wanted 100 landfill-free (“zero waste”) manufacturing sites by 2020. The company has already surpassed this target as part of its larger goal, to be “the leading auto-maker in waste reduction.” Managing its waste, which once cost GM billions of dollars a year, now makes the company more than $1 billion annually.

Automakers are not the only ones setting visionary targets. Consider a few more:

  • Unilever wants to halve its greenhouse gas impact of its products across the product lifecycle by 2020.
  • Coca-Cola will “replenish” 100% of the water used by 2020 (and Diageo just set a similar goal).
  • Walmart will eliminate landfill waste from U.S. stores and Sam’s Club by 2025 (and actually, 39 of the Fortune 200 have zero landfill goals).
  • Biotech firm Novozymes plans to “deliver 10 transformative innovations…and save 100 million tons of CO2through the use of its products by 2020.”
  • French utility EDF wants to “ensure equal pay for female employees.”

These targets set a high bar for both business and society. Coca-Cola depends on water resources for its products. Unilever believes that increasingly aware and concerned consumers will buy more of its sustainable products. And won’t EDF attract the best talent by compensating women better? And for Nissan, the company recognizes that a brand known for safety will certainly attract buyers.

The leading large companies seem to be realizing that their size gives them great influence over the world and creates unusual opportunities to tackle big issues. By setting big, visionary, science-based goals these companies are taking on a larger role in the world, creating new levels of performance, creativity, and business value.

This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review:

Andrew's new book, The Big Pivot, was named a Best Business Book of the Year by Strategy+Business Magazine! Get your copy here. See also Andrew's TED talk on The Big Pivot.

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The Power of Visionary Business Goals

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