By Vickie Elmer
FORTUNE -- After a decade in business, Paul Saginaw could feel complacency creeping in at Zingerman's Delicatessen, the successful gourmet eatery and market he had co-founded.
It wasn't clear where new ideas would come from or how the Ann Arbor, Mich.-company would grow from its historic orange brick home.
So Saginaw decided he and his partner needed to stare into the future, think creatively about what they wanted to happen, and develop a vision for their business and for themselves that went far beyond serving corned beef sandwiches or imported cheese. He wanted to consider their future contributions to the world as well as to Zingerman's advancement. His partner Ari Weinzweig's response: "Why are you bothering me? I've got work to do."
Saginaw eventually convinced him, saying, "This is the work of leaders." In 1994, they spent weeks creating a 15-year vision that opened the door to creating related food enterprises led by Zingerman's crew. By the end of 2013, they were overseeing a group of eight companies, doing everything from roasting coffee, training business people, shipping shortbreads and gift baskets, and making bread, candy, and cheeses, among other things. All are run using Zingerman's brand of long-range vision plans to grow and improve. Last year, Zingerman's expanded its original deli with a "sandwich line of our dreams" and three new dining rooms. Its sales are expected to top $50 million this year, up from $30 million in 2007.
The company's success is Exhibit A for using vision writing as a means to grow a business. Zingerman's training company, known as ZingTrain, will introduce the concept to mom-and-pop businesses, some mid-sized companies, as well as some university types (including those at neighboring University of Michigan).
In one sense, vision writing is like setting a series of very detailed 10- or 12-year goals for your career or business. Researchers have shown that setting moderately difficult goals can be useful in determining a company's direction, improving productivity, and creating commitment to working toward critical outcomes. And the way goals are framed may improve results.
"Almost during the seminar itself, we started writing what our vision would be," says James Clark, co-founder of Room 214, a digital marketing and social media company whose clients include Adobe, Forever 21, Vail Resorts, and Mr. Coffee.
Within two days of returning to Room 214's offices in Boulder, Colo., the vision was "probably about 70% done," with partners and directors contributing. They took it to the entire 28-employee company, read the vision out loud, and within two weeks had completed their vision, which called for a culture of employee development and training, small satellite offices aligned with new opportunities, and eventually a venue to unplug (a resort they plan to buy in Costa Rica).
Vision writing could be "a competitive advantage to firms that are bold enough to give it a try," says Dorie Clark, an adjunct professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. Yet it's used rarely in the corporate world, in part because of its New Age ties.
"There's a fear that vision writing may connote a sort of self help ethos, not what serious business people do," says Clark, who is the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. "If it could be rebranded as an innovation technique, which is what every company is looking for right now, that could … gain currency."
Vision writing as a business tool has been around for decades, used by both Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich. It's part of the 7 Habits developed by Stephen Covey -- his "start with the end in mind" edict is crucial to good vision writing.
"It's a written definition of success," says Saginaw. "We didn't know we would accomplish it, but we knew what we wanted ... We talk about starting with the end in mind," whether the end involves expanding the original deli at a cost of $10 million, improving deliveries at the coffee company, or planning a charity dinner.
Saginaw's partner now teaches vision writing at ZingTrain and has written about it in some books -- published by Zingerman's Press. Weinzweig hopes that his adopted hometown will be a center for visioning and sees thousands of companies using it.
Vision writing is useful when you want to plan for something exciting and worthwhile, but it can't be a fantasy. It must have some business underpinnings and measurable elements. The writing process gives the goal more power and clarity, as does sharing it with your entire organization.
"Write for something really inspiring and significant," said Weinzweig in a webinar on the practice. Pick a date in the future -- "get further out than you feel comfortable with," Weizweig suggested, perhaps 10 to 13 years.
Zingerman's vision writing documents are written in present tense -- as if the company is already enjoying all that it has accomplished. Zingerman's completed its first vision and added a half-dozen companies that create or sell high-quality food and drinks; its second vision document goes through 2020 and calls for "radically better food," a focus on education and a fun environment, and growth to about 18 businesses, all of them in or near Ann Arbor, Mich.
So why does it work? Saginaw has an answer for that: The document, written in the future perfect tense, serves as a filter for opportunities, to help determine whether they will lead Zingerman's in the right direction or distract it from its ideal future.
"Start with your wildest dreams," said Saginaw. "When you share it, it will be honed in more rational thought."
Sometimes the vision needs to be pulled out to remind senior managers of what they wanted in the first place. When Zingerman's opened the Roadhouse, a bigger restaurant, many early customers had "a bad experience ... We really sucked," Saginaw recalled. So they returned to their vision of a place that makes and sells classic American food, like potato-bacon soup and many varieties of macaroni and cheese, and it has turned its act around. In fact, its executive chef won a James Beard award in 2011.
Yet some say a vision may make you blind to great opportunities. "One potential risk of … using vision writing is you'll hit it. Maybe what you should be doing instead is exceeding it, or innovating in ways that sitting here in 2013 we can't even possibly imagine," Dorie Clark said.
Saginaw isn't worried about that; he said most visions leave room for strategies to change and innovations to show up. "The vision is the what. The strategy is how we're going to get there ... We wanted to be pushed" to achieve something ambitious, something that leaves a legacy.
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