Are you simply and clearly saying nothing?


What do you think of this vision statement?

The vision for HR is to partner with the business to ensure that we are supporting the company’s strategic needs in the most cost effective way while driving a high return from the investment that we make in our people.

Have you seen a vision statement like that recently? I bet you have. Try this – replace “HR” with “IT” and replace “our people” with “technology”. It still works. Now, try these changes:

  • Change “HR” to “Facilities” and “People” to “buildings and physical plant”
  • Change “HR” to “Quality Engineering” to “People” to “Quality processes”

It works again. In fact you can swap in any business function and the resources that function controls and it will work. How is this helpful to your people? Every department in an organization should be supporting the company’s strategic needs in the most efficient and impactful way. This statement doesn’t say anything new and it doesn’t provide a “North Star” to which people should focus their beliefs, behaviors, and actions.

It sounds clear but it’s actually quite vague.

I call this “poodle grooming”. Poodle grooming is creating statements that are so general they apply to just about anything. When something can apply to anything it provides meaning for nothing.  The best way to create clarity is through specificity.

This doesn’t only happen with vision statements. You can find examples of poodle grooming in business strategies, improvement recommendations, goals, and in training and communication. Poodle grooming results from a lack of critical thinking.  It’s easy to quickly spit out a platitude.  It’s hard and takes time to create a unique, meaningful statement.

I first “discovered” the idea of poodle grooming while reviewing the design of a training workshop. The topic of the workshop was balanced scorecards. Here was the outline:

  1. Introduction
  2. History of balanced scorecards
  3. Pros and cons of balanced scorecards
  4. Steps for creating a balanced scorecard
  5. Considerations when creating a balanced scorecard
  6. Workshop close

I was struck by the fact that after reading this I still had no idea what they were actually going to teach.  Then I realized that this is pretty much a list of topics for any workshop.  I tested my hypothesis by doing a search and replace of “balanced scorecard” with “poodle grooming”.  Guess what?  The outline still made sense (for the most if you allow some grammatical license).

Poodle groomed statements look good but provide little value. While they are easy to agree to, they can’t actually be applied directly.  They must be broken down and operationalized before they are used. This creates two problems: 1) different people break the statements down differently. Instead of moving forward with a common direction and purpose, your people will be moving in different, possibly contradictory directions. 2) It ‘s less efficient. Often the poodle groomed statements will be developed relatively quickly and efficiently. This creates a false sense of accomplishment and progress. That sense of accomplishment quickly becomes eroded. Teams iterate through different interpretations of the statement until finally stumbling on the real intention and its specific details.

Avoid poodle grooming.  Think critically about the statements you make and the explanations that you provide.  Be specific.  Being specific doesn’t mean being wordy.  You can be specific in a few words.  It’s all about taking the time to choose the right ones.

Five tips for avoiding poodle grooming

Be specific – Answer the traditional “journalist” questions of who, what, where, why, when, and how.

Test your statements– Replace the main subject with a different department or function. If it still makes reasonable sense, it’s too generic.

Look for unique words or phrases– Try to identify words or phrases that specifically reference your unique situation (other than the name of the topic or your function)

Avoid buzz words– By definition, everyone is using them so they are probably not unique to your organization

Resist your first idea – The first thing to pop into your head is the most obvious and probably most general and overused idea (that’s why it was top of mind).  Dig a bit deeper

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