±: 1.1.1 The Vision - A comparison of four Swedish banks and their visions

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Bank on me! Because on a clear day, you can see forever

The viewPeople have dreams. So do companies.

But in business we don't like the concept of dreams, it is too fuzzy and gives us a feeling of uncertainty. To make us feel better about it business schools and consultants have translated the dream concept into something we believe is more tangible: the vision. In other words: We replace one fuzzy concept with another fuzzy concept - but the new concept comes with a price tag.

But whenever you make something more tangible, you create limitations. Some limitations are good for you, some are bad.The good ones give you direction, the bad ones put you in the box.

In this text we will check out how the company vision forms the box, how concrete visions can create risks instead of opportunities and how tacit visions can create opportunities instead of risks.

As examples I will use four of the biggest banks in Sweden - SEB, Swedbank, Nordea and Handelsbanken. I will also introduce how the psychology concepts basic assumptions, automatic thoughts and locus of control may indicate why these banks do as they do and maybe how some of them can do better.


So, what is a company vision?

Different roles and functions give different answers. But whoever you ask and whatever answers you get, all answers have one thing in common: The vision shows how far you can see. Nothing more, nothing less.

In short, a vision contains one or several of the following aspects:

  1. A limitation of playground
  2. A goal for playing
  3. The time spent playing
  4. How to play

At a glance, all aspects look great and productive for a company. And in the best of worlds, the ideal company vision incorporates a definition that each company role and function can identify with. But surprisingly often, it presents limitations instead of opportunities. Suddenly, the company vision constitutes the box.

Let us take a look on how visions can work for or against a couple of companies. To make a relatively qualified comparison, we need an industry where all the main actors offer the same services. To make it a little more interesting, why not take an industry where most actors have been struck by one or several backfires in recent times. The latter may help us to see a possible financial consequence with more clarity. Let us see how visions are defined in the bank industry.


Bank on us!

In Sweden there are four major players: Nordea, Swedbank, Handelsbanken and SEB. Each bank can be said to have been more or less driven in a negative or positive way due to the ongoing financial crisis. Some of them more than others, just check the newsmill. And often they put the blame on external factors. Boy, did the financial crisis come timely. But can we really put all the blame on external factors or can we find potential triggers or drivers in other factors - factors reinforcing a negative trend?

March 25, 2009. Three of the banks in this example (No 1, No 2 and No 3) had their vision spelled out on their home page. The fourth I had to find another place since the bank is not using the normal brand lingo but is talking about its philosophy. Here are the translated versions.

Bank 1

Bank 2

Bank 3

Bank 4

Our vision is to be the leading private banking actor in Northern Europe in terms of customer satisfaction and profitability.

We want to be the leading financial institution on the markets we have business.

The bank’s vision is to be the leading Nordic bank, acknowledged for its coworkers who create major values for customer and shareholders.

The bank is working with development and continuity in the long term.

Exhibit 1. The bank visions

You have probably discovered that three of the banks have visions that easily could be swapped with each other – No 1, No 2 and No 3. This is normal when it comes to mature industries. It is difficult to differ companies in regards to their visions when talking about an established industry and established business structures. The differentiation are more often done in the visualization which I will address in a separate text.

When studying the visions, we can see that the ones belonging to No 1, No 2 and No 3 are limited in time and space, goals and the evaluation of their goals. No 4, on the other hand, is an open vision not limiting the playground with anything else than the company's own presence on the playground, a playground we all have a common perception of since we study a mature industry.


What do you bank on?

In psychology we find the concepts basic assumptions and conditional assumptions. These two form the foundation we base all our decisions on, and probably also our dreams.

The first stop for all decision making is the basic assumptions – sometimes also referred to as automatic thoughts. Examples of basic assumptions can be “Life is good”, “Life is bad”, “The market is big”, “The market is small”, “I am in control”, “I am in no control”, etc. An assumption does not have to be a phrase, it can also be a word, like "Good", "Bad", "Strong", "Weak", "Big", "Small", etc. Basic assumptions and automatic thoughts are often the result of our upbringing and/or our accumulated experiences. The same goes for companies' basic assumptions and their automatic thoughts.

The second stop for our decision making is the conditional assumptions - aka your reflections. These are normally the answers to a “What if”-question regarding our basic assumptions or other external factors. Conditional assumptions based on basic assumptions can be something like “I am good, because…” or "I am strong, because...". Conditional assumptions based on external factors can be “If the legislation is saying this, then…” “If the market is big, then…”. Conditional assumptions are often the result of our education. Personally, I prefer to locate the conditional assumptions in the mission statement to exclude clutter, but if conditional assumptions in the vision work for you, feel free.

These two types of assumptions give us a pointer about a person's - or a company’s - locus of control. The locus of control is a concept defining where you put the responsibility for the outcome whatever it may be. Locus of control was originally a concept in psychology developed by Julian Rotter in the 1950s. Rotter found that persons with an internal locus of control see themselves as responsible for the outcomes of their own actions while people with external locus of control see environmental and situational factors as more important.

So if you would bank on a bank- would you prefer to bank on the one placing the responsibility of the outcome outside itself (on the market) or the bank placing the responsibility of the outcome inside itself? I would personally go for the one being responsible for its own actions. Wouldn't you? So if the bank were to present a "good vision" wouldn't that be the one showing that they take responsibility being active on the market instead of entering reactive mode?


And who would you bank on?

If we go back to the four banks and check their locus of control, we see that the first three indicates some degree of external locus of control in their vision. Three of them have the ambition to be or become the “leading bank”, but none of them define “leading” as something they are in control of. Although their visions indicates a corporate external locus of control, No 3 is probably a little better off, since they to some extent includes the employee factor as a positive trigger or driver. However, the biggest problem these banks face, is the negative consequence of their corporate external locus of control they demonstrate in their vision - their basic assumption.

If you were to rate these visions as a trigger or driver for plus-minus factors where -5 is negative, 0 is neutral and 5 is positive, how would you rate the different banks?

My guess would be


Bank 1

Bank 2

Bank 3

Bank 4





Exhibit 2. The bank ratings


Bank 1 and 2 have a negative value indicating some minus factors. Bank 3 receives a slightly more positive score since the bank includes its employees. Such an inclusion may be reinforcing a positive internal locus of control, but since the major premise is based outside themselves, they still will have difficulties in reaching a better score than a neutral value. Bank 4 is defining itself and its own actions without limiting their playground. Their vision is almost like a mission statement, but since it actually does not include the services they offer nor their pricing, we may still define their vision as a vision.


So how can you build a resilient vision?

Creating or redefining a vision does not come as easy as it first may seem. Mainly because a lot of people want to have their sayings when it come to companies - especially when the company reaches a certain size. The simplest way to build a resilient vision is to take what you have right now and work through these three steps:

  1. Define limitations (Defining the box or playground using the four aspects above)
  2. Assess whether these limitations are implicit or explicit (Evaluating the box)
  3. Check for internal or external locus of control (Evaluating what you can do with the box)

I will use bank No 2 as an example on redefining/refining a vision:

Bank No 2, original vision:

We want to be the leading financial institution on the markets we have business.

In this vision, we are being presented a couple of limitations; the geographical limitation (on the markets we have business) and the goal limitation (leading financial institution). The vision does not include the time limitation nor the how limitation. If they were to add those, the vision would probably end up like this:

Bank No 2, 2nd version after Step 1 rewrite:

We want to be the leading financial institution on the markets we have business by actively working with the long term perspective.

Now let us see if the limitations are implicit or explicit. Spontaneously I would say that the implicit information this vision provides, is "financial institution" and "on the markets we have business" is not needed. The cost for implementing and communicating a message to internal and stakeholders in order to understand and confirm one extra word in a basic assumption is costly, and here we have eight. What happens if we remove those limitations? Ok, for the sake of the argument: the bank may have one or several investors abroad on markets they are not active on, but would it not be more cost effective to emphasize those limitations in a conversation one-on-one? Let us continue with a rewrite.

Bank No 2, 3rd version after Step 2 rewrite:

We want to be leading by actively working with the long term perspective.

This version still works for a bank, does it not? If it works for them, it works. But when we check this rewrite against Step 3 - checking for internal or external locus of control - we see that the concept "leading" may constitute a problem, because who defines leading? If the definition of "leading" is defined by the company itself, the company vision becomes self-focused and self-absorbed, and the stakeholder - read: the customer - is forgotten. Who wants to be around a self-absorbed company looking after its own interests as a basic assumption? On the other hand, if the definition of "leading" is in the eye of the stakeholder, the company will lose its internal locus of control making my interests their basic assumption. Sounds nice, but do they not have a mind of their own? Where is their integrity? Let us make a final rewrite:

Bank No 2, 4th version after Step 3 rewrite:

We want to actively work with the long term perspective.

It still works for a bank, and it is interesting that the vision for bank No 2 suddenly starts to resemble the No 4 vision.

How about bank No 1 and 3?

Bank No 1 could successfully use the same redefining/refining and probably end up with a very similar vision. Bank No 3, on the other hand, would probably end up with something like this:

Bank No 3, step 3 version:
The bank’s co-workers create long term values for customer and shareholders.


Almost forgot: Which vision belongs to which bank? No 1 is SEB, No 2 is Swedbank, No 3 is Nordea and No 4 is Handelsbanken. Below you can see their stock development for the last three years. The blue lines represent the stock, the grey lines represent the index.









Exhibit 3. The bank result. Source: Avanza

The visions were found here:

SEB's homepage

Swedbank's homepage

Nordea's homepage

An interview with a Handelsbanken-employee in the Swedish online publication Campus

Good to read

Creativity Unlimited, Micael Dahlén
The Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine -- and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It


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