Category Archives: Strategic Planning

Facilitating an organizational vision: Guided Visualizations

Asian woman dreaming iStock_000015298832XSmallMany visioning processes begin with a guided visualization, where participants close their eyes and listen as they are guided by a facilitator through a series of images and questions. The key is to imagine we have arrived at a specified, fabulous point in the future – where all of our dreams have been realized. It is exactly the way we want it. It is about what we are for – not what we are against. And for most of us, our experience of being in this desired future reality is vivid and visceral. (Note: a few of us experience “visualizations” slightly differently – some of us don’t see pictures in our minds at all. Instead, we see words, or experience a set of sensations.) The experience of imagining that we have arrived at a point in the future – that we are there, right now – can unleash a whole new set of innovative, creative ideas. Click here for a list of 14 questions or elements to weave into your visualization script.

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Facilitating an organizational vision: Collage

ImageSometimes words are not enough. Creative approaches such as collage can be incredibly powerful for developing compelling visions – starting with images. The words can follow. Leadership coach and facilitator Olive Dempsey offers a beautiful workshop on visioning using collage, or what she calls “visioning boards”. Sharon Livingstone, a brilliant focus group moderator based in New Hampshire, first taught me to use collage as a creative-association technique when I briefly studied with her several years ago.

The basic idea is this: provide stacks of different kinds of magazines, glue stick, scissors, and some sort of cardboard backing. Invite participants to thumb through and pick out any images that speak to them about an aspirational, fabulous future life – personal or professional or both. They may pick out words, or letters to make up words. You might add coloured pencils, watercolours, anything else to facilitate capturing a collection of images that convey a feeling AND specific outcomes or states of being. For organizational visions, this is fantastic to do in small groups or teams.

The trick to making this really work lies in the debrief afterward. Have each group present their completed collage. Ask: Why did those specific images speak to you? What’s surprising and new? What are the key themes or threads that may draw it all together? What do others see, outside of the group? What’s most resonant here for all of us?

Here’s a lovely example of several simple vision boards; these are focused on personal visions, but of course could equally apply to organizational visions.

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Facilitating an organizational vision: The Hot Pen Technique

Successful organizations have long known about the power unleashed across a team when people are galvanized around an effective vision. There are dozens of approaches to facilitating an organizational vision process. The essential process is all about marrying imagination and strategy – taking intuitive, creative and informed leaps into a possible aspirational future. The next few posts will lay out just a few that I’ve found really effective as a facilitator, starting with the “hot pen technique.”

Books like The Artist’s Way describe the benefits of using stream-of-consciousness approach to creative writing for a prescribed length of pages or amount of time. The idea is to let your creative juices flow, without editing or judging anything that wants to emerge. Feeling creatively constipated, so to speak? Not to fear. Just write ‘blah blah blah’, or cuss like a sailor – anything goes. Just write.

Business leader and visioner extraordinaire Ari Weinsweig teaches a similar approach to visioning specifically, and it’s incredibly powerful (and fun). He calls it the “Hot Pen Technique”. Check out page 144 of Ari Weinsweig’s “A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business” for specifics. The basic idea is this: write for at least 15 minutes without stopping. Turn off your ‘internal editor’ and just write – whatever comes to mind – about your aspirational future. It should be a stretch – that is, bold enough to get your heart racing just a little – but also achievable. It should also be personal. Put yourself in the picture. You’re the star of this movie!

And ideally, include the elements of a great story. That is, engage your senses of light, touch, smell, taste, as you describe the setting and characters co-starring in this fabulous new future. Hell, add a soundtrack! Make it as vivid, detailed and visceral as your imagination allows.

I recently attended a workshop of Ari’s while facilitating a retreat in beautiful Molokai, Hawaii, and found this technique to be remarkably useful. While I went into the exercise feeling pretty clear about my vision, the method crystallized and fleshed out startling new details of what I hope to achieve in both my personal and professional trajectory.

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14 Questions to ask when facilitating an organizational vision

iStock_000015298832XSmallLast month a good friend called me up in a bit of a panic. “I’m chairing another citizen’s meeting next week”, she said, “but I’m afraid it’s going to go like all the others: we’re going to generate a big laundry list of tactics, drink a lot of bad coffee, eat too many cookies and go home feeling dissatisfied. And bloated. We’re thinking too small. We need a vision!” So we talked about the different ways she could lead her folks into bolder, more inspiring territory through a visioning process.

There are many ways to facilitate a group of people through a visioning process. Most of them are rich, often profound and always creative. The essential process is about marrying imagination and strategy – taking intuitive, creative and informed leaps into a possible, aspirational future.

One of the most powerful approaches is a “guided visualization”. I have led dozens of groups through guided visualizations as part of a visioning process over the past decade. Inspired by Inc. magazine’s list of “14 questions you need to ask when crafting a vision for your businesses success”, here’s the list that I implicitly use. These can be adjusted for individuals, small business or non-profits. In practice, I develop a script tailored to the unique needs and assets of each client group, but it usually contains these elements.

  1. Time frame… 3-5 years? 10 years? Collins and Porras, in Built to Last, recommend 10-30 years. Notions of “purpose” and “core ideology” are more long-term; visions change relatively more quickly to reflect the changing internal and external dynamics of organizations.
  2. Stories….. Start with a specific time and place, specific characters, and a setting… Where are you, in your mind’s eye? Put yourself in the picture! As I described in an earlier post about stories, scan your senses: lights, temperature, movement of the air, sound, smells… Who is there? What’s happening? This will get you into the story in a deeply personal way, unleashing more of your own creative, imaginative power.
  3. Major accomplishments: What are you most proud of? Get emotional, personal and specific. What are your top 1-3 major accomplishments or “big wins”? Imagine there was a feature article about your success. What did the headlines say? What difference did this make in the world?
  4. Breakthroughs: In the past X years, what is the most significant breakthrough that launched the organization into a whole new level of wild success? How? What happened? Who helped make it happen? What was different?
  5. People you serve: Whose lives is your work touching? Who are you serving? How exactly are they engaging with you? Zero in on one or two ‘representative’ individuals… Why are they choosing to engage with your messages, services or products? What’s in it for them?
  6. Allies: Are there new or unusual allies that contributed to your success as an organization? As an individual?
  7. Your niche: Notice other groups similar to your own… How is yours specifically unique and different?
  8. No-go zones: What are some services or approaches that your organization does NOT offer or do?
  9. Internal collaboration: How are people working together internally? What is the feeling/tone of that work? How are teams working with one another ‘across silos’? What’s new and different? Why is it working so well? What are the specific structures and practices that are making this new level of collaboration so successful?
  10. People in the organization: Who is working in the organization – what do they look like, demographically? What is the collective culture like? What practices or group norms do you notice?
  11. Leadership: Who is leading the organization? How are they leading? What’s it like? Is it different? If so, how?
  12. Resources: What kind of abundance is the organization enjoying? What does that look like, specifically?
  13. Geographic scope: Where are you working, and not working – are there specific communities? Regions? How focused are you?
  14. What else… What else do you notice that’s different, or the same, in this successful, deeply satisfying future?

Afterword: So I whipped up a script based pretty well on all these questions and emailed it off to my friend, and she used it to lead the group through a closed-eye visualization process. She did an amazing job – it was by all accounts a fantastic success. After the visualization, she helped everyone share their individual insights and arrive at a few core themes that resonated for the whole group. They left feeling energized, inspired, and aligned around a whole new level of collective work. And it’s entirely possible that they didn’t scarf down quite so many cookies.

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Typical Not-For-Profit Vision Statements

As I continue this series of  posts on organizational visions, I want to acknowledge right now that most organizations, particularly in the not-for-profit sector, don’t use a narrative-focused approach in building their visions.  And I respectfully submit that many non-profits have lackluster vision statements. A few are certainly short and to the point, but fail to tap into the power of a vivid narrative description.  Vision statements of even the largest, most well-resourced charities in the world are often based on what feels like an unattainable future, or are so broad and conceptual as to feel like meaningless platitudes.  They aren’t bad, necessarily – they just aren’t compelling, or “sticky”.

Here’s a typical (hypothetical) example:

“Our vision is for a world without hunger.”

What does that really mean? What does such a future look like? It’s not motivating, because of two things:

One, it’s unclear. That is, I have no pictures in my mind of what that world looks like. Sure, I can make up a few stories, scenarios and images – but that’s just me going to the extra mental effort filling in the blanks for myself.

Two, it seems unattainable. To our knowledge, no reasonably complex human society has ever successfully ended hunger for all of its citizens.

Here are several other classic, real-world examples:

“A hunger-free America

“A world without… [insert disease here]”

“A sustainable world for future generations”

“A world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments”

What do you think? Are these sufficiently vivid, sticky and compelling to be repeated by staff at all levels; to be motivational and inspire weary volunteers even in tough times?

In upcoming posts I’ll share some of the methods I and other facilitators use to help organizations and businesses tap into the power of their own visions.

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Case study: A compelling narrative vision for Zingerman’s Farmer’s Market

Zingerman’s Westside Farmer’s Market

In my last post I described Collins and Porras’ 4-part model for an effective vision. One component is a vivid narrative description. I’ve seen relatively few organizations create this, particularly in the not-for-profit sector – but its creation is possibly the most fun and engaging. Here’s a lovely example of a narrative vision statement for what became a Zingerman’s-sponsored Farmers Market in Ann Arbour, Michigan:

It’s the longest day of the year; the sun is at its pinnacle of warmth and light. Throngs of people are milling around the Roadhouse parking lot, amazed and excited at the abundance of locally produced goods, ranging from several gorgeous varieties of tomatoes to handmade soap and artisan crafts, to herbs and plants, plus a very strong synergy of Zingerman’s items—cheese from the Creamery, breads from the Bakehouse, and the ever-energetic Roadshow crew caffeinating all the vendors and customers. Every vendor is selling the best of what there is to offer, growing or producing themselves what they sell…”

And by the way: within just four years this vision had become a full, day-glo reality for the lucky farmers and foodies of Ann Arbour.

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4-Part framework for a powerful organizational vision

Way back in September 1996, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote a seminal article in HBR about successful organizational visions, and followed that with the now-classic book, Built to Last. Their ideas on visioning galvanized a wave of enthusiasm across the whole organizational development sector that continues to this day. I still absolutely love the clarity and power of their framework, and continue to use it often to inform my own organizational consulting practice. It goes like this:

      1. Purpose: An organizational vision is grounded in a deep sense of purpose. Purpose is essentially permanent; it could easily ensure for 50 or more years. Purpose is never achieved – it is an overall direction. Yet it is still clear. An organization with a strong, clear purpose would literally walk away from markets, customers or (in the case of non-profits), funders, rather than compromise its purpose.
      2. Values: Like purpose, core values are enduring. They don’t change, even during market shifts. What are the principles that guide your organization’s choices and behaviours? I’ve worked with several organizations that begin with long virtual “shopping lists” of core values (several have had 14 or more). But once we explore what the values might mean in terms of actual behaviours and decision-making, the lists get much shorter; Collins and Porras suggest that no more than 3-5 is ideal. Would your organization be willing to walk away from a foundation grant or major project if it meant compromising a particular core value? Take “transparency” as a core value. How is it reflected in practice? Budgeting, for example, could be completely open and transparent. That’s the case with Zingerman’s Delis; they are one of the few organizations in the world to use Open Book Finance. Staff are involved at every level of budgeting, from forecasting to implementation and tracking. Out of respect for privacy, individual salaries the only data not shared with staff.
      3. BHAG: what is your Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal? In the 1960s, NASA’s was to “put a man on the moon.” Once they accomplished that, the BHAG needed to change. BHAGS are bold and somewhat long-term, but they are not permanent – they are concrete, major milestones achieved while on the path of purpose.
      4. Vivid narrative description: Finally, what’s the story of your preferred future? John Kotter, author of Leading Change, suggests that the vision should vivid, repeatable, and possible to convey in no more than 5 minutes.

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5 Qualities of a great organizational vision

goldfish jumping to new bowl-iStock_000020130958XSmallQuick: think of an organization or business you know and love. Maybe it’s one you actually work or volunteer at. What’s their vision for success? In other words, what’s the specific statement or narrative that they use to describe wild, vivid, success in, say, ten or twenty years? Chances are they have one – but you don’t know what it is of the top of your head, even if you work there. Or they have one – but it’s so broad as to be virtually meaningless. Maybe it’s just a vague platitude, like “an end to world hunger.” True, it’s not easy to come up with a clear, powerful vision. But the process itself can be a wonderfully creative experience. And once developed, an effective vision can be a rich source of fuel and inspiration for years to come.

Truly great organizational visions tend to have 5 key qualities. And, no surprise – – these are the same qualities of effective social change messages of all kinds:

  1. Visual: This seems like a no-brainer, but visions should, in fact, involve imagery – vivid pictures, told in words, that literally stimulate the visual cortex of listeners. “In 30 years we will have achieved world peace” is certainly aspirational, but it’s not visual.
  2. Motivating: Effective visions are emotionally compelling, and deeply motivating. They speak to the heart and gut – not just the head. They inspire people to act, to keep going when the going is tough, to dig down a little deeper because with that extra push, the beauty and power of that collective vision feels within reach
  3. Achievable: Powerful visions are like big “stretch goals” – their achievement may be well out of our comfort zone, it may call for great acts of courage and perseverance – but it is actually possible to get there. They are, in the words of Ari Weinsweig, “strategically sound.”
  4. Positive: Effective visions are stated in the positive – what we are FOR, not what we’re AGAINST. That’s easier said than done for many social change organizations whose orientation has been focused on stopping oppression or negative environmental and economic development.
  5. “Spreadable”: Like any good, ‘sticky’ story, effective visions can be repeated, spread like a happy virus from one team member to another, and beyond. If they are too long, boring, or conceptual (versus vivid and grounded in tangible imagery and action), we can be pretty certain they will sit on shelves gathering dust. John Kotter, author of “Leading Change”, suggests that it should be possible to convey a great vision in no more than 5 minutes. That way, they can be communicated as a regular, cherished practice across all levels of the organization. His research suggests that most companies under-communicate their visions by a factor of 10.

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The power of organizational vision

In 1961, US President John F. Kennedy challenged his nation to, literally, reach for the moon:

 “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

In a mere seven years, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans on the planet to set foot on the moon’s surface.  Dozens more followed.  Like all great leaders, Kennedy understood that an effective vision will unleash a level of power, alignment and motivation that can change the world.

I’m in the midst of supporting a visioning process for a large civil rights organization. The team has a phenomenal track record, and is now ready to take their work to the next level.  Their questions and insights have encouraged me to reflect even more deeply on my own approach to visioning – so organizational visioning is going to be the focus of my next few posts.

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Four Solutions for striking the media “brand balance” in coalitions

For non-profit organizations working in coalition, picture this all-too-familiar scene: you’re sitting around the table hammering out the key messages of a major news release, carefully crafting the lead quote and framing the sound bytes, stats and background information into a snappy, compelling 1-pager. But then the tensions start to build: whose organizational representative gets the lead quote? Whose name or names and contact information get listed at the top of the page for reporters to follow up with (assuming you’re not going to make the mistake of listing 10 different spokesperson contacts on the release)? And it’s not just news releases: individual spokespeople and organizations get profile through the authorship of op-eds or letters to the editors, blog postings, and on their relative prominence as contacts in story pitching or briefing letters to the media or in media advisories.

Here’s the thing: in most cases, if one of your members has a gigantic brand profile (think: WWF or Greenpeace), they are most likely going to generate the MOST media interest and follow up, every time.  Which is the whole point of the release…right? But it’s not always so simple in practice.

In fact, coalitions are faced with balancing multiple goals. One is obviously to maximize the profile of a critical public or policy issue. Another may be more subtle, but of equal or even greater strategic importance: to maintain the internal strength of the coalition itself. Coalitions can strategically be worth more than the sum of their parts simply because they are coalitions. The particular mix of groups may represent unlikely allies working on (and therefore adding credibility and profile) to a joint issue; or it may show a surprisingly unified position across a sector; or it may simply represent strength in numbers. Keeping a coalition strong may be a major component of the overall strategy. And that means having open dialogue about issues of power, privilege, and the meaning of true collaboration.

I’ve worked with dozens of coalitions over the years, and have seen at least four solutions that real-life coalitions use to balance issue profile with the maintenance of trust and goodwill within the coalition itself. In each case, success relies on a clear agreement, set out in advance and often in writing, about which approach the group will use.  In brief, here they are:

  1. Rotate organizational brands: simply track and rotate which group representatives get the most prominence across a range of media initiatives. One approach is to rotate the lead for every initiative (“you get the lead for this release, and I’ll get the next”). Another variation is to rotate the leads over time; e.g., group X gets the lead for stories from March-June, group Y gets the summer and Fall, and so on.
  2. Focus on geographic relevance: highlight the member groups with the greatest regional relevance to a story. For example,  if a story particularly affects the East Coast, then the Atlantic groups will lead on it.  If it’s a national or international story, the coalition may first highlight one of the international members along with a regional group, but the active pitching and follow-up would be done by regional groups to their own regional media.
  3. Highlight expertise and/or legwork: highlight the member group or individual with the greatest expertise on the issue, and/or those who simply did the most work on this particular story or event.
  4. Highlight the group with the greatest media profile: finally, coalitions may decide to simply aim for the biggest bang for their bucks when it comes to the media profile side of their work, and consistently highlight the groups and individuals in which the media will be most interested, in order to maximize media coverage.

None of these options is mutually exclusive. Coalitions may choose to rotate smaller stories in principle, but for one or two major stories in a year, simply focus on gaining maximum coverage. Or, they may rotate the media profiles in their advance media planning (ie, as they set out the communications and media events they will proactively generate over the next year), but have a nimble sub-committee determine who leads on sudden “response-required” stories on a case-by-case basis (“nimble” being the key word; otherwise, this approach is risky!)

Agreement and true buy-in are key.  Given that collaboration itself is often the core strategy for any coalition, it only makes sense to invest early in frank and open dialogue about the brand profile options, and ensure the whole group is really aligned with the final agreement, well in advance of any media maelstroms.

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