Many 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.
Last 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- Allies: Are there new or unusual allies that contributed to your success as an organization? As an individual?
- Your niche: Notice other groups similar to your own… How is yours specifically unique and different?
- No-go zones: What are some services or approaches that your organization does NOT offer or do?
- 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?
- 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?
- Leadership: Who is leading the organization? How are they leading? What’s it like? Is it different? If so, how?
- Resources: What kind of abundance is the organization enjoying? What does that look like, specifically?
- Geographic scope: Where are you working, and not working – are there specific communities? Regions? How focused are you?
- 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.
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.
Quick: 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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.”
- 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.
- “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.
In 1961, US President John F. Kennedy challenged his nation to, literally, reach for the moon. Like all great leaders, Kennedy understood that an effective vision will unleash a level of power, alignment and motivation that can change the world. This is the start of a series of ideas and tools to help you with your own visioning process.
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.
Sharing media profile is one of the most challenging issues many coalitions face. Here are solutions coalitions I’ve worked with have used to strike the balance between maintaining a strong internal collaboration, and maximizing media profile for a shared issue.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I just got off the phone with one of my coalition clients, as we committed to planning our next meeting together well in advance. There is nothing like well-organized face-to-face meetings for collaborating, bonding and pooling a group’s collective brain-trust and creativity. But as we all know, meetings can have a Dark Side. If done poorly, meetings can suck a group’s life force; I swear they can! And they can squander money. Consider a two-day meeting of 15 non-profit members, each receiving a salary equivalent of about $25/hour. It costs a whopping $6,000 for their time, and that’s before even considering food, travel costs, facilitation fees and venue rental.
Solid preparation is one of the keys to ensuring that that $6,000 of face-time is invested well. That means doing as much pre-thinking about the meeting overall, and specific topics within it, as possible. Anything that could just as easily be addressed via email, should be.
Obviously a well-designed agenda is the first step to making the most of valuable face-time. For larger group meetings, when there isn’t time or budget to contact each participant individually, I often use an on-line survey, like SurveyMonkey, to get a sense of agenda priorities across the whole group.
And I always have the client group do a quick “P.O.P.”, clarifying the Purpose, desired Outcome and best Process, both for the overall meeting, and for each agenda topic.
Another key tool I’ve been working with for several coalition clients is the classic Briefing Note. If you do government relations, the concept will be familiar: it’s a tightly-written 1-2 page document aimed at bringing extremely busy decision-makers up to speed on an issue quickly. A briefing note typically includes key background facts, analysis, options – with well-considered risks and benefits for each – and recommendations. A decent template for writing government-focus briefing notes – for example, the format a Ministerial Assistant might use when informing a Cabinet Minister about essential elements and possible responses to an issue – can be found here; just check one of the “background” buttons to download a sample.
Briefing notes are also useful for extremely busy non-profit or coalition members. When well-crafted briefing notes are circulated (and of course, read) in advance, they allow groups to skip past the preliminaries or simple updates – which can easily be done via email – so they can dive right to the heart of a meaty agenda topic fairly quickly.
The concept is pretty straightforward, but here are a couple of structures that I’ve seen work well for teams and coalitions:
1. Briefing notes for decision
Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name
Purpose: “For Decision” (ie the group will need to consider the issues raised in the note, in addition to others that may arise, then make a decision about how to proceed)
Background: (include a summary of key facts, including main actors, major events/activities to date, analysis, public opinion data, highlights of media coverage and framing to date, etc)
Options: 2-5 possible courses of action, including a brief assessment of the pros and cons for each.
Recommendation: proposed course of action, and the rationale
2. Briefing notes for information/updates
Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name
Purpose: “For Information”
Background: include a summary of key facts, new/emerging trends, new analysis, etc
Activities: clarify key activities to date as they relate to the overall strategy
Results: clarify the outcomes and results to date based on the activities
Outstanding questions: here’s where the group can get important ‘heads-up’ about unclear issues
Next steps: note upcoming decision points, key actions/events others may need to be aware of
Briefing notes can be used for other purposes as well. I’ve worked with groups that use them to prepare their colleagues for a brainstorm or idea-generating session: sometimes a smaller team just really needs a larger pool of creative thinkers to ensure they have a robust pool of ideas and strategies. Then those ideas can later be explored and tested outside of the meeting. These kinds of creative sessions can be really invigorating for a team, too – a stimulating shift from more business-like or process-focused topics.
I’ve also seen briefing notes used to shape the way a group provides face-to-face feedback on a key strategy or funding proposal. This can be helpful when real dialogue is needed, so that trade-offs can be explored in more depth. Circulating a proposal to a series of individuals via email or googledocs just won’t allow for that kind of synergistic, collective reflection and discussion.
Well-crafted briefing notes require a fair bit of work and discipline on the part of the presenter. They also require discipline on the part of participants – who need to commit to reading them in advance. But over and over I’ve seen individual and collective thinking sharpened considerably with this kind of pre-work, allowing groups to do what they do best – think creatively, dig deep, explore trade-offs and shared values, and find collective solutions to complex problems.