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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.
I confess, after facilitating last week’s leadership training on skillful listening and peer coaching, this little video had me in complete, tears-running-down cheeks hysterics: It’s not about the nail…
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.