The Idea in Brief

Hewlett-Packard. 3M. Sony. Companies with exceptionally durable visions that are “built to last.” What distinguishes their visions from most others, those empty muddles that get revised with every passing business fad, but never prompt anything more than a yawn? Enduring companies have clear plans for how they will advance into an uncertain future. But they are equally clear about how they will remain steadfast, about the values and purposes they will always stand for. This Harvard Business Review article describes the two components of any lasting vision: core ideology and an envisioned future.

The Idea in Practice

A company’s practices and strategies should change continually; its core ideology should not. 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. Core ideology is something you discover—by looking inside. It’s not something you can invent, much less fake.

A core ideology has two parts:

1. Core values are the handful of guiding principles by which a company navigates. They require no external justification. For example, Disney’s core values of imagination and wholesomeness stem from the founder’s belief that these should be nurtured for their own sake, not merely to capitalize on a business opportunity. Instead of changing its core values, a great company will change its markets—seek out different customers—in order to remain true to its core values.

2. Core purpose is an organization’s most fundamental reason for being. It should not be confused with the company’s current product lines or customer segments. Rather, it reflects people’s idealistic motivations for doing the company’s work. Disney’s core purpose is to make people happy—not to build theme parks and make cartoons.

An envisioned future, the second component of an effective vision, has two elements:

1. Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals (BHAGs) are ambitious plans that rev up the entire organization. They typically require 10 to 30 years’ work to complete.

2. Vivid descriptions paint a picture of what it will be like to achieve the BHAGs. They make the goals vibrant, engaging—and tangible. Example: 

In the 1950s, Sony’s goal was to “become the company most known for changing the worldwide poor-quality image of Japanese products.” It made this BHAG vivid by adding, “Fifty years from now, our brand name will be as well known as any in the world . . . and will signify innovation and quality. . . .‘Made in Japan’ will mean something fine, not something shoddy.”

Don’t confuse your company’s core ideology with its envisioned future—in particular, don’t confuse a BHAG with a core purpose. A BHAG is a clearly articulated goal that is reachable within 10 to 30 years. But your core purpose can never be completed.

Companies that enjoy enduring success have core values and a core purpose that remain fixed while their business strategies and practices endlessly adapt to a changing world. The dynamic of preserving the core while stimulating progress is the reason that companies such as Hewlett-Packard, 3M, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Merck, Sony, Motorola, and Nordstrom became elite institutions able to renew themselves and achieve superior long-term performance. Hewlett-Packard employees have long known that radical change in operating practices, cultural norms, and business strategies does not mean losing the spirit of the HP Way—the company’s core principles. Johnson & Johnson continually questions its structure and revamps its processes while preserving the ideals embodied in its credo. In 1996, 3M sold off several of its large mature businesses—a dramatic move that surprised the business press—to refocus on its enduring core purpose of solving unsolved problems innovatively. We studied companies such as these in our research for Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies and found that they have outperformed the general stock market by a factor of 12 since 1925.

A version of this article appeared in the September–October 1996 issue of Harvard Business Review.