Vision, values and purpose according to Collins and Porras

For anyone familiar with vision, values and purpose, chances are that you’ve heard of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras.

Two square photographs: on the left is a headshot of Jim Collins (wearing a navy suit, blue shirt and red tie); on the right is a headshot of Jerry Porras (wearing a black suit, white shirt, blue tie and glasses)

Built to Last (written by both Collins and Porras) and Good to Great (written by Collins) have been described by The Economist as “the Harry Potters of management literature”. Built to Last was a fixture on the BusinessWeek best seller list for more than six years and Good to Great (which has been translated into 35 languages) was, in 2008, the bestselling business book of all time.

For this reason, Collins and Porras cannot be ignored and they have been credited with being “largely responsible for a revival of interest in the ‘visioning thing’ in the mid-1990s”.

That is not to say however that the pair are without their critics, in part due to the fact that “almost half of the visionary companies on [their] list have slipped dramatically in performance and reputation.”

In an in-depth article published in 2004, Fast Company examined both sides of the argument—namely, have the companies on Collins and Porras’ list failed because they stopped applying their principles or did other events and the wider business context simply change?—and essentially ended up sitting on the fence:

There’s this one big rub about management books…The world they seek to describe is so complex, so tumultuous, often so random as to defy predictability and even rationality…And all this jumble and chaos mean…that for every management theory, there is an equal and opposite theory that makes just as much sense…Perhaps BTL readers would do well to follow the title of chapter seven: Try a Lot of Stuff and Keep What Works. Now there’s some business advice worth taking.

Personally, I love Collins and Porras’ work and believe that we can learn a great deal from their insights. Yes, critical thinking must be applied to every text and it’s important to learn from later events but that’s not to say that works authored by Collins and Porras are lacking in value.

Matt and I have put their approach to building vision to the test (both ourselves and with our clients) and we believe it works. I agree that no theory or book should ever be taken as gospel but, in our experience, Collins and Porras’ philosophy is a great place to begin the journey of articulating vision, values and purpose. At the very least, it provokes lively discussions within management teams and their organisations, stimulates the discovery of valuable insights and provides food for thought. All of these are worthy outcomes and if such experiences lead to strategic alignment, a unified focus and motivated people, then I believe their philosophy offers much that we can learn from.

A little history…

Collins and Porras’ first attempts to create a framework that defined organisational vision seem to be documented in their 1991 research paper, Organisational Vision and Visionary Organizations. This framework consisted of a ‘Guiding Philosophy’ (in which purpose was driven by core beliefs and values) and a ‘Tangible Image’ (in which mission led to the creation of a vivid description).

Their framework was influenced by both the research later published in Built to Last and their work with a variety of organisations. It should also be said that, in creating a framework, Collins and Porras intended to remove some of the “fuzziness” surrounding vision:

If we look at the literature on organizations and strategy, we find numerous terms for “vision” that sometimes are used synonomously, sometimes have partially overlapping meanings, and sometimes are intended to be totally distinct from each other. As one CEO told us: “I’ve come to believe that we need a vision to guide us, but I can’t seem to get my hands on what ‘vision’ is…no-one has given me a satisfactory way of looking at vision that will help me to sort out this morass of words and set a coherent vision for my company. It’s really frustrating!”

Eventually, the ideas first articulated here evolved into the framework many will now be familiar with from Built to Last and also Building Your Company’s Vision published by Harvard Business Review in 1996:

The diagram shows a modified yin yang symbol. In the yin element of the circle are the words, "Core Ideology: Core values, Core purpose" and in the yang element of the circle are the words, "Envisioned Future: 10-to-30-year BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal), Vivid description".

For those of you unfamiliar with this framework, I hope to provide an introduction below.

Core ideology

For Collins and Porras, core ideology is absolutely integral to vision setting. Their use of the yin yang symbol was deliberate: core ideology is essentially meaningless without progress or movement towards the future, whilst a congruent vision cannot be created without a stable foundation.

For a vision to be created, it is essential to first understand those elements of the organisation that will always remain unchanging. In the words of Collins and Porras themselves:

Core ideology defines a company’s timeless character. It’s the glue that holds the enterprise together even when everything else is up for grabs…a consistent identity that transcends product or market life cycles, technological breakthroughs, management fads, and individual leaders.

Core values

Core values are the handful of beliefs, guiding principles or tenets that are absolutely non-negotiable within an organisation. Imagine your own personal values: it may be that, in relationships, honesty, integrity and kindness are important to you; you may value courage, fearlessness and daring; or how about fun, humour and happiness?  When you contemplate your personal values, you usually have a sense of what is truly important to you—the characteristics that you couldn’t live without. For Collins and Porras, organisational core values are the same—they are as natural as breathing.

Throughout their research, Collins and Porras consistently found that “companies tend to have only a few core values, usually between three and five”—any more than this and they believe that core values are being confused with other factors. From their perspective, ‘core’ means that a value is “so fundamental and deeply held that [it] will change seldom, if ever.”

Consistent with this idea, they believe that values cannot be created but must instead be discovered. Although we all aspire to worthy ideologies, if a value is not authentic to the behaviour of your organisation, Collins and Porras suggest that treating it as core is likely to lead to justifiable cynacism. Instead, they believe that aspirations are more appropriate to an envisioned future.

So, what does your organisation really believe in? There is “no universally right set of core values” and it is even likely that other organisations will hold at least some of the same core values as you. It is important however to determine those values that your organisation would hold steadfastly. To test whether a value is truly core, Collins suggests asking whether you would want your organisation to stand for this value in 100 years time and he even goes so far as to ask whether you would continue to hold this core value “even if at some point in time it became a competitive disadvantage”?

Core purpose

In many ways, core purpose is similar to core values: it is natural and fundamental to an organisation, it is deeply held and unchanging, it need not be unique, and it must be discovered rather than created.

For Collins and Porras, every organisation has a purpose, even if it hasn’t been articulated yet. Purpose could be described as the heartbeat or soul of your organisation—your organisation’s “most fundamental reason for being”. Not to be confused with product lines, services or customers, purpose motivates and inspires. A true purpose grabs “the ‘soul’ of each organisational member” and reflects their “idealistic motivations for doing the work.”

For me, Collins and Porras’ best description of core purpose is:

…like a guiding star on the horizon—forever pursued but never reached.

Purpose guides and directs an organisation, it determines who fits within an organisation and who does not, it is the plumb line by which all other decisions should be measured.

To determine your core purpose, Collins and Porras suggest asking questions such as:

How could we frame the purpose of this organisation so that if you woke up tomorrow morning with enough money in the bank to retire, you would nevertheless keep working here?

When telling your children and/or other loved ones what you do for a living, would you feel proud in describing your work in terms of this purpose?

Envisioned future

For Collins and Porras, an envisioned future is the means through which core ideology is translated into a tangible goal that stretches and challenges your organisation. Where core ideology “resides in the background, ever-present and ‘in the woodwork'”, an envisioned future is “in the foreground, focusing people’s attention on a specific goal…[it] is bold, exciting and emotionally charged.”

10-to-30 year BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal)

Whilst all companies have goals, Collins and Porras found that visionary companies often had exceptionally bold and ambitious targets or, as Collins and Porras coined them, BHAGs—”pronounced BEE-hags and shorthand for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals”.

Unlike core purpose, a BHAG has a clear finish line and an organisation should be able to determine when the goal has been achieved. That said, for Collins and Porras, “a BHAG should not be a sure bet—it will have perhaps only a 50% to 70% probability of success”. However, an organisation should nonetheless believe that it can achieve the goal, something that Collins and Porras came to call the “hubris factor”. To set BHAGs requires a “certain level of unreasonable self-confidence” or, at the very least, unreasonable self-ambition.

The easiest way to explain BHAGs is to compare them to stretching and challenging personal goals. For example, I have reasonably good levels of fitness and enjoy exercising regularly but to set myself the goal of cycling from Land’s End to John o’Groats, completing an Ironman triathlon, or climbing Mount Everest would require extraordinary effort on my part. All of these goals are potentially within my reach should I ever wish to complete them but they are certainly no walk in the park! BHAGs are the 10-to-30 year organisational equivalent of these. What does your organisation wish to achieve in its future that would require “extraordinary effort and perhaps a little luck”?

Perhaps the other thing that should be said about BHAGs is that, much like core ideology, they should be inspiring. To be honest, I have no real wish to climb Mount Everest at present, so I am unlikely to ever achieve it. Setting a BHAG simply for the sake of setting a goal is pointless. Rather, Collins and Porras suggest you should ask, “Does it get our juices flowing? Do we find it stimulating? Does it spur forward momentum? Does it get people going?” In their words:

The envisioned future should be so exciting in its own right that it would continue to keep the organisation motivated even if the leaders who set the goal disappeared.

Vivid description

Unlike a BHAG—which should be concise (usually no more than a sentence or phrase), easy to understand and capable of being expressed in a multitude of ways—a vivid description is an organisation’s opportunity to express in detail what it will feel like to achieve their goal.

For Collins and Porras, a vivid description is essential to making a BHAG tangible. Describing the achievement of the BHAG is about “painting a picture with your words”—a “vibrant, engaging” picture that brings your goal to life. For example, climbing Mount Everest is certainly a goal but how would it really feel to stand on that peak and look out across the mountain ranges below? What else would have already been achieved along the way?

Although it can be uncomfortable to express emotions in an organisational context and Collins and Porras readily acknowledge that some managers find this difficult, they also believe that “passion, emotion and conviction are essential parts of [a] vivid description”. It is precisely these ingredients that motivate others.

We must dispose of the widely accepted norm that rationality should rein supreme, and that emotion should be kept in check. Creating the right mission and describing it with vivid detail should release people’s passion and generate the commitment organisations need to achieve high performance.

One of the methods that Collins and Porras advocate for developing a vivid description is to write an article that you would love to see published about your organisation in 10, 20, 30 years from now. Imagine that you have achieved your BHAG and a major newspaper or business magazine is writing about your organisation—what would they say?

A last word

For Collins and Porras, their vision framework is about preserving the core (through the discovery of core ideology) and simultaneously stimulating progress (through the creation of an envisioned future). It is about managing both continuity and change.

…it’s not either core or progress. It’s not even a nice balance between core and progress but rather two powerful elements, inextricably linked and both working at full force to the ultimate benefit of the institution.

Collins and Porras believe that “without vision, organizations have no chance of creating their future, they can only react to it.” In contrast, when vision becomes an explicit part of an organisation’s DNA, they believe that the organisation has inherent capabilities to achieve their goals, to outlast changes in leadership, to weather organisational storms and, ultimately, to prosper.

Both authors acknowledge that an organisation’s journey will not always be smooth and it could even be said that visionary organisations will inevitably experience some failure but, in the words of Porras, “The key point is that visionary companies display a remarkable resiliency to bounce back from adversity and shine over the long term.”

And for those of you who like the research…

Brown, T. (1994). Greatness that endures. Industry Week. 12-22.

Collins, J.C. (2002). Vision framework. Available as a PDF from Jim Collins’ website

Collins, J.C. & Porras, J.I. (1991). Organizational vision and visionary organizations. California Management Review. 30-52.

Collins, J.C. & Porras, J.I. (1996). Building your company’s vision. Harvard Business Review

Collins, J.C. & Porras, J.I. (2000). Built to last: successful habits of visionary companies (3rd edition). London: Random House Business Books.

Reingold, J. & Underwood, R. (2004). Was “Built To Last” built to last? Fast Company

Article by

Debbie Stocker

Debbie is director of Stocker Partnership, a strategy and innovation consultancy. She's a great facilitator, researcher and strategist. With an approach that is both creative and methodical, Debbie combines her expertise in psychology with a strong commercial focus. Her signature strengths include kindness and a love of learning. She also line manages the office dog. More about us

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