Vision is the ability to articulate a future. The secret to vision is to twofold: Asking why, and asking why not?
Once you know why something is the way it is, you can create a plan for the future. Why not is a question that implies the future. Why not have a computer on every desk? Why not have all my data across all my devices? Why not have only digital books? Why not takes you from the present into the future. Vision emerges from why not.
Whatever ideal future pops into your head after asking why not needs to be articulated. That articulation is your vision for the future. And like all marketing, a vision has a few components.
Two Kinds of Vision
One kind of vision is jumping on the general trends and working on incremental improvements. For example, it's pretty easy to say that hybrid cars are the way to go, and that the United States will require more fuel efficient cars. If I was Toyota or Ford, I'd be working on more fuel efficient cars as people want cars that can go further on a gallon of gas. As Kevin Rose on Twit said, this is riding the current wave. It's also a lot easier to do well in. If the stock market is going up, you can pretty much pick anything and make money.
Most people have a vision of the first kind. They look at current trends and capitalize on them. Tons of companies were doing search prior to Google. They were even advertising with search, but Google had a better way of searching when search was becoming the big app of the internet. Dell computer rose so fast since they sold commodity computers directly through the web as everyone started needing a computer. You can be hugely successful riding a big wave.
The second kind of vision is creating a wave where nobody else is. Steve Jobs has done this multiple times. Everyone in the smartphone market was doing their own crappy phones until Steve Jobs came out and said here is a radically new kind of phone. Touch started the current smart phone innovation wave we see today. Microsoft created the computer business with a vision of a computer in every home. Amazon became the go to online retailer by instilling in us that shopping online for everything is viable. When you create something that changes your expectations and how you live, it creates a new wave. These are game changing visions and only few companies ever hit these high notes.
There is a rare version of the second kind of vision that cements you in history. This is when everything changes. The internet is a whole new kind of wave, a different kind of communication medium. Thomas Edison is famous for inventing an electricity distribution system. The Wright brothers for harnessing flight defined generations after them. These things only come once every few decades, but they are truly revolutionary.
Vision is Social
The critical thing about vision is to understand how your change impacts society. Nothing, no matter how technically competent, how technically awesome, will ever actually be realized without understanding the social impact. Every vision must scratch a social itch. Every technical solution is just a means to somehow scratch the itch. Mobile devices feed our need to check anything, anytime, anywhere. We are addicted to the internet. An iPad lets me be lazy and surf the web in my bed. Cars solve the fundamental problem of becoming frustrated waiting too long to travel somewhere by horse. Electricity rids the annoyance of lighting a candle. If you aren't solving some kind of human problem, you don't have a vision. You only have a solution to a technical problem.
Vision is Scalable
Your view of a better world needs a scale. It doesn't matter what that world is, and at what scale, but you do need to define your scale.
Vision can be a very small and personal endeavour. I want to lose 10 pounds this year. The whole new years resolution tradition is giving yourself a one year vision. When you're asked: where do you see yourself in five years? Your answer is really a vision at the personal level.
Vision can scale up and start affecting other people. You want to become a great mentor and influence the young to achieve their potential. This kind of gift is of tremendous value, and lots of people really love being teachers for that reason. They love seeing their past students grow into respectable adults. This vision is at an inter-personal scale.
Thinking bigger, you can start to influence your industry. The Google Android team probably has a vision where everything can be done via speech to text technology. Google itself wants everyone to search for things on the internet in whatever way they feel most comfortable. They have a world that redefines how we find things online.
Scaling up starts getting into solving regional issues. Lowering drug use in New York City starts getting into community issues. Removing air pollution from Beijing prior to the Olympics is a regional issue. Still too, perhaps one day, the middle east will no longer be a hotbed of violence. These are concrete regional visions.
You could start thinking at the global level, or even higher. At the global level, every global leader at least verbally, would love to stop using fossil fuels as the main energy source. Eliminating a whole class of energy use is a vision at an amazingly high scale.
NASA gets to have the grandest kind of vision since they are the only ones doing the things they do. Who else gets to study the universe? Who else gets to think of things like terraforming another planet. NASA could have a satellite in every neighboring galaxy by 2050. Or they could build a machine that sits on an asteroid and sends back data for the next 50 years.
Vision scales, you can have multiple visions at each scale, you just need to know where on the scale your vision sits.
Vision isn't stagnant. It changes with time and with market conditions. It has to be flexible enough to weather all the different fashions that may happen and still leave enough room to for organic growth. Zappos' vision is to have the best damn customer service in the world. However, when they started, it was probably something like "let's make buying shoes a great experience". It grew into have the best damn customer service in the world. Amazon probably didn't have the vision of becoming the de facto online shopping experience, including digital media. Jeff Bezos back in the 1990s probably just wanted to have all the books in the world. Like a person, your vision grows with time.
Vision is Abstract
A vision has to fit into one sentence. I don't think any powerful vision that really spreads can be any longer since a vision requires that other people buy into it and act on it. You need people to not only want your change, but believe that your change can happen. You have to entice them and let your vision be loose enough that those who listen to it can visualize it. "Let's put a man on the moon". Simple, powerful, easily visualizable, and easy to act on.
If your vision is too concrete, people won't come up with ingenious ways to act on your vision. Zappos' vision of having the best damn customer service in the world lets their employees do awesome things like free shipping both ways and a no questions asked return policy. Bill Gate's philanthropy is not only amazing but simple: Improve health in the third world. You can imagine all kinds of ways to do it, its a powerful message, and you can easily visualize an African kid not being sticks and bones.
Vision isn't Execution
Vision gives people a destination, but that doesn't mean you'll get there. You still have to execute. Vision and execution are two separate ideas. If you have a vision but can't execute, it doesn't matter. Someone else may come and execute your vision, your idea of the future may be so inevitable that it happens anyway, but at the end of the day, if you can't capitalize on it, what's the point?
The actions with the most impact have execution and vision go hand in hand. Like Peter Drucker said:
"The best way to predict the future is to create it." - Peter Drucker
* Thanks to Christoph Kerschbaumer and Michael Bebenita for proofreading and feedback.