(FORTUNE Magazine) – Ah, vision. Last thing on Lou Gerstner's mind. Achilles' heel of George Bush. Great topic between rounds of golf on a weekend off-site: Justifies the tax deduction without taxing the brain.

You know the drill: Carry your coffee from breakfast to the meeting room, find a seat at a table, play with the pile of markers and Post-its, admire the vacant sheets of brown paper on the walls. Tee time is 1 p.m. To make sure you get there, try this Handy-Dandy Vision Crafter, an exclusive for FORTUNE readers. Select one to three items from each group below, add your logo, marinate overnight in Scotch and red wine, and serve with a straight face.


To be a

a) premier; leading; preeminent; world-class; growing

company that provides

b) innovative; cost-effective; focused; diversified; high-quality

c) products; services; products and services


d) serve the global marketplace; create shareholder value; fulfill our covenants with our stakeholders; delight our customers

in the rapidly changing

e) information-solutions; business-solutions; consumer-solutions; financial-solutions


Vision is a squishy subject that makes executives squirm. "There is a fine line," a CEO once told consultant Ram Charan, "between vision and hallucination." Visions are Big, Important Stuff everyone's supposed to subscribe to. The easiest way to do that is to drain them of substance so nothing remains to disagree with. Most visions boil down to "Go, team, go!"

Actually, "Go, team, go" implies the right questions: "Where?" and "Who, me?" Forget about "doves appearing from heaven," says Robert Frisch, a vice president of Gemini Consulting; a vision should describe what's happening to the world you compete in and what you want to do about it. It should guide decisions.

Frisch has a way to develop corporate vision that strikes me as very smart, though it's too new to have proved itself. Because it's deliberately "pedestrian"--his word--he calls it vision engineering. In the past year he and his colleagues have done it with Bridgestone/Firestone, Norsk Hydro, Sears, U.S. Cellular, and others. It's orderly, sensible, and intellectually engaging--i.e., fun--which makes it superior to golf on three counts.

Often, Frisch says, companies working up vision statements begin by identifying their constituents (customers, employees, etc.), the markets they serve, the pieces of the value chain (manufacturing, wholesale, retail, and so on) they most covet, and how their portfolio of businesses matches them. That's too "inside" for Frisch. It leads quickly into disputed territory: Marketing pushes for new lines of business, manufacturing wants to stick to its last; with no empirical basis for resolving the dispute, the twain never meet, so the train never leaves the station. Other times, visioneers do scenario planning, spinning out visions of the future based on competing assumptions. You can come up with four scenarios about China, for example, by wondering if it will be stable or unstable, democratic or autocratic: stable democracy, stable autocracy, unstable democracy, unstable autocracy. Useful, Frisch agrees, but it's dessert. The logic of scenarios ultimately leads you to make bets based on uncertainties. Preparing for the unexpected has a place, but it comes after preparing for the expected.

When the executive team enters the room where Gemini is doing vision engineering, it'll find a long table at one end bearing perhaps 100 stacks of cards. Printed on the cards in each stack is a single fact or trend, demographic, social, technological, economic: Baby-boomers are reaching 50; work schedules are more flexible; the power of microprocessors will continue to increase exponentially; Americans save less than 5% of personal income. Some are industry specific: A beverage maker's executives found a card stating that store brands are becoming more important. They'll all be true, based on the consultants' research, advice from outside experts, and industry trends the executives themselves have identified.

Now the fun part: Everybody walks around the long table studying the cards, their purpose to string sets of them together and put headlines on the strings. You might take increased use of credit cards + growing value of brand equity + rising number of Internet users + ability to use technology to do specific market-segmentation. Q.E.D.: It's possible to bypass retailers to sell branded merchandise on the Web. When I played the game with potential Gemini clients in New York, our group put up headlines like "distinctions between business, leisure, and personal spending are blurring," "technology reduces entry barriers," and "consumers are both more knowledgeable and more confused."

When everyone has taped a few strings and headlines to the wall, small groups debate, edit, and perhaps combine them. The groups then report to the whole for another round of debate. When this phase--the first of three--is done, the team ought to have half a dozen to a dozen headlines. Each tells a story about something happening in their business world--trends they agree are real and important and that, moreover, have an audit trail back to a set of facts.

Frisch calls them "drivers of change" and grabs a metaphor: "They are waves coming toward the shore. Some are bigger than others, but they are all headed toward us. We can either build a surfboard to ride them, or let them crash over us." He isn't alone in using trends to help define vision, but this method has a big payoff: Because leaders aren't just told what experts say but derive and debate the trends themselves, they're less likely to harbor "yes, but" reservations. They get achieved rather than received wisdom.

That was of enormous value to Bridgestone/Firestone, which sold $5.6 billion worth of tires in the Western Hemisphere last year. When Japanese tire giant Bridgestone bought Firestone in 1988, management focused on fixing the manufacturing guts of the place--cutting costs, upgrading quality and plants. Management information systems took a back seat. When, last year, those moved to the fore, executives figuratively blanched: A new information system might cost as much as $100 million--an investment that couldn't be made wisely without a vision of the industry's future.

Says Michael Gorey, controller of U.S. tire operations: "We realized we needed to go somewhere, but where that somewhere was, we didn't know." Was it more important to link finance and procurement internally and with Tokyo or to make seamless information connections with major customers like Ford? How would retailing trends--used-car superstores, discounters like Wal-Mart, online shopping--affect the tire industry? When Bridgestone/ Firestone's three dozen top executives gathered in a Nashville hotel last fall for the first of two meetings, Gorey says, "the room was full of factions and functions, each with its own ideas of the major business influences and trends." A big split was a classic one: Manufacturing excellence was one thing, but customers also wanted a more responsive organization. It was a delicate topic: First, the manufacturers were mostly Japanese and the marketers American; in addition, each of the 21 operating units was responsible for its own customer base and brand--but most had to compete with the others for capacity and budget.

It was a triumph, then, when the group agreed on ten key business influences; the list itself is confidential, but not the consensus that technology will reshape how tire companies go to market, compel them to share more information (for example, about inventories) with buyers, and also help the factories forecast and schedule production--in short, a bigger deal than most had realized, with implications both sides of the house could exploit.

Bridgestone/Firestone's surprise is no surprise. Frisch finds that companies usually identify major forces of change that aren't in any way addressed by their plans. In one stunning instance, a company's executives agreed that their industry was on the road to restructuring--but they had no plans to be the perpetrators rather than the victims of what they all saw coming.

Realizations like that come out of the second and third phases of vision engineering. Phase two asks leaders to figure out how each incoming wave affects each link of the value chain--from R&D to service--for every line of business. These disruptions amount to a list of threats and opportunities, and lead directly to the third phase: a disciplined look at the capabilities and assets the company has or must get if it's to dodge the threats, exploit the opportunities, and ride the waves of change.

You're almost home. Remember the stuff about key constituents, markets, the value chain, and the portfolio? Now's the time to bring that up. With a shared view of the world, Frisch argues, "you can make practical decisions instead of having theoretical discussions." When politics makes its inevitable appearance--for example, when a powerful vice president sees his duchy is threatened--you can battle with facts instead of testosterone. Frisch says, "If you have this discussion on day one, you won't get anywhere."

This isn't soul-stirring stuff. It's better: You get a cluster of opportunities supported by a set of existing and to-be-developed assets, bounded by a realistic view of how your world is changing. Better still, you also miss golf--and you've not only justified the tax deduction, you've earned it. Plus the Scotch and the wine.

Join Tom Stewart in the FORTUNE FORUM ON COMPUSERVE (GO FFORUM) or by E-mail: 74774.3555@compuserve.com