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.
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Sometimes 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.
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.
Some of my recent posts describe the power of effective organizational visions, including examples of a few not-so-great vision statements, and one fabulous vision in narrative form. Here are a few more examples of organizational visions that do hit at least some of the notes of a vivid narrative description of an aspirational future. The key: we can see pictures in our minds about what success looks like, and what the organizations are for – not just what they’re against.
We are feeding ourselves, our families, and our community with easily accessible and nourishing food from our local gardens, farmers, and ranchers.
– Slow Food Denver
Canadians have confidence in us. Canadian Blood Services provides a safe, secure, cost-effective, affordable and accessible supply of quality blood, blood products and their alternatives. Canada is self-sufficient in blood and we are working to be self-reliant in plasma. Emerging risks and best practices are monitored continuously. Our blood and blood products are safe and of quality…. [the full vision is longer, but you get the point!]
– Canadian Blood Services
Our vision: Provide a world-class Club Experience that assures success is within reach of every young person who walks through our doors, with all members on track to graduate from high school with a plan for the future, demonstrating good character and citizenship, and living a healthy lifestyle.
– Boys and Girls Club of Martin County, USA
ForestEthics believes that protecting our planet is everyone’s business. Because of our work, environmentally responsible corporations and governments will thrive. Natural systems will be protected, and the people and wildlife that depend on them will prosper. Markets will be more transparent and ethical.
What are YOUR favourite examples of great vision statements? I’d love to hear them! 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.
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.
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.
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.
1. Clarify your purpose
For specific communications, get specific about your purpose. For example, is the message being delivered for information only, to generate feedback, to generate new ideas, or is a specific action required?
2. Clarify your desired outcome(s)
Do you need a response in writing by a certain time or prior to a particular event? Are you seeking a list of 3-5 new ideas? How specific can you reasonably be about how you will define success? This step is essential for identifying the benchmarks and metrics you’ll use to evaluate your results.
3. Know your audience
- Identify your target audience. Who exactly do you need to reach? Is it ‘everyone in the organization’ – or are the most important people, in fact, a few key influencers or opinion leaders (which has nothing to do with positional power, necessarily), individuals with specific skills, or one or two key decision-makers?
- Meet them where they’re at. What do they already know, believe or feel about the issue? If you’re talking about a brand-new concept, then a little informational background will be essential. If they are aware of the issue, but highly skeptical, then your messages and framing will need to address that, not just gloss over it.
4. Develop the strategy
- Identify pathways. What are the most effective pathways for reaching your particular target audience(s)? Is it email? Written memos (remember those?) A phone call? Face to face meeting? Intranet? Social media? Cloud platforms such as google drive? Hard copy memos inserted into payroll packages? A display board in the staff common room?
- Consider messengers. Also ask: who’s the most effective messenger? It may not be you. It may not be the most senior executive. Does your audience instead need to hear the message from a trusted peer? Do you need internal champions to move the issue forward?
5. Develop the message
Now that you’ve identified and ‘profiled’ your audience, develop your message. It should be short, clear, compelling, and ideally, visual. It is very likely positive – focused on what the team is for, rather than what it’s against. If you deliver the message through stories, it will almost certainly be ‘sticky’ – both memorable and high-impact.
6. Deliver the message
Effective communications are really about delivering the right message, to the right audience, at the right time – often many times. So plan it out. Here are some elements to think about:
- People power: Who needs to do what, by when? Who is the decision-maker? Who needs to be consulted? Who needs to be informed? Who’s doing the actual work? Is there a lead, or internal ‘project manager’ to ensure the work is proceeding as planned?
- Timing: When is the optimum time to deliver the message? How often does it need to be repeated?
- Resources: How much time will it take – and are there other resources required? How is this work reflected on internal workplans, if at all?
- Metrics: How will you know the message is received? How will you know the desired results are being achieved? When and how are you scheduling evaluation along the way (see below)?
7. Evaluate and learn
Don’t just identify metrics for tracking progress – revisit them on a regular basis. Use what they teach you. Build evaluation into monthly and quarterly reviews, for example. And include it as a routine practice or group norm: for instance, at every staff meeting, include a standing agenda item that has the team reflect on its internal communications. Include tracking questions on annual internal organizational surveys. Questions could be as simple as: How well are we communicating our organizational vision? How well are we keeping one another abreast of one another’s work and results? How are we doing with having “courageous’ conversations” in a timely, skillful way? How are we doing with email brevity and appropriateness? How are we doing with the preparation and use of well-crafted briefing notes? Insanity has been defined as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Building in evaluation at every level of your communications will interrupt any bias toward activities and help teams focus on results. With routinized evaluation, your internal communications, and therefore your internal alignment and collective ability to get things done, will continually improve.
Here’s a great multi-agency plan for a set of child-focused Irish agencies attempting to collaborate more effectively. There are clear, high–level messages, a broad but clear set of audiences and a list of tactics tailored somewhat for each audience, plus a broad-stroke timeline. The challenge with the plan is its lack of metrics – how will they measure success?
The ITSMF, a forum for Information Technology professionals, offers a great internal communications plan to its members. Out of respect for its chapter model, it is not overly prescriptive, but does suggest useful types of metrics that could form the basis for continual evaluation.
The global organization Civicus also offers a short, useful case study on pages 17-19 of its internal communications toolkit. Evaluation is mentioned under “next steps”, with specific reference to a follow-up survey to track results over time.
Why are some stories ‘stickier’ than others? I pondered the question while I sat at my desk, sipping the steaming hot Nicaraguan coffee we brought back from holiday a few weeks ago. My puppy’s fuzzy black head rested heavily on my bare foot, and I was getting ready for a conference call, when my colleague Nina forwarded this wonderful post about story-telling and the senses. Serendipity! When communications strategist and writer Nina Winham and I taught a session on communicating sustainability last year, I pushed our participants to tell stories that didn’t just have a ‘beginning, middle and an end’, but more importantly, activated the senses. “Describe the setting”, I urged; “the light, the temperature, the atmosphere. Who was there? What did they look like? What were they doing? How did it feel, to be there? Were there any scents in the air? Sounds”?
According to an emerging body of research in the neurosciences, stories that activate the senses – sight, sound, smells, and touch – literally activate those same sensory regions of the brain in both listeners/readers and story-tellers. That’s why, in advocacy communications, there’s such a vast difference between communicating the meaning of something (“our aging communities deserve better access to health care”) versus leading with stories that paint pictures in the listener’s minds (“yesterday my 83 year old mother clutched her throbbing, broken right wrist for six hours as we waited for a doctor’s care in the jam-packed emergency room at St. Vince’s hospital…”). Check out this powerful infographic that shows how specific regions of the brain ‘light up’ when presented with sensory-loaded story-telling. By activating the senses through our words, we are putting the listener in the picture – almost literally putting them in the center of their own story. When it comes to effective stories, whether it’s a quick aside or mention of just one sensory quality (“it was a sunny Spring morning”) or a more complex narrative, every sense counts.
A few months ago my teenaged son was struggling with getting started on a speech for his English class. He had a stack of research notes and a ton of ideas (who knew that a tree sloth can hold its breath underwater for up to 40 minutes?), but was at a loss as to how pull it all together. I explained that early in my communications career, my friend and mentor, veteran journalist David Beers, laid out a simple but brilliant formula for writing op-eds. Over several years helping non-profit leaders create and place op-eds, I found it to be nearly foolproof. Happily, I discovered that the formula is also fantastic for getting started on a compelling speech. And while a beautifully crafted speech defies any pat formula, a simple framework can help get those creative and intellectual juices flowing. So, here’s the basic idea, starting with my own addition: beginning with a story. For the rest of it – apologies to David, as I’ve almost certainly mangled his original sage advice!
Here’s the overview, followed by some detail:
- Start with a story
- Provoke with a compelling hypotheses or main argument
- Back it up with 3-5 supporting points or ‘validators’
- Describe the solution or call to action
- Circle back to the opening hypotheses (or story)
1. Start with a story…
As virtually every communicator should know by now: start with a story. It could be anything: a personal experience, or one recounted to you; a current news story; a hypothetical or fictional story. As the authors of “Made to Stick” describe so well, stories are “sticky” because they engage an audience’s imagination. When we hear a ‘vivid’ story, we literally see pictures in our minds, and in some ways experience the emotions and physical embodiment of the described experience. This dynamic can transform the audience-speaker relationships. As master communicator and brand strategist, Bill Baker, explains, “starting your presentation with a story helps you break through their cynicism, lower their defenses and get your audience to see you as a person, not just a presenter. In turn, this makes them more likely to connect with you, trust you and listen to you.”
Typically, I encourage speakers to think about a few basic elements: setting and characters (it’s ‘stickier’ to see actual pictures in our minds, not just hear about concepts), some sort of tension or ‘quest’, action, and resolution. There are probably a dozen frameworks or elements taught to help create stories; that’s just one approach. I tend to push the visual. At public speaking trainings for the Center for Progressive Leadership and Simon Fraser University I would ask participants to pair up and tell stories that were so vivid their partners could actually draw something to capture the tale.
Your initial audience engagement doesn’t have to be as rigid as a classic story, however. You could:
- start with a brief visualization (“picture this: you’re driving along Highway 99, when suddenly…”)
- ask a question that invites the audience to ponder their own perspective before sharing yours (“How do you discern between a genuine and token apology?”)
- ask for a show of hands to demonstrate some particular common experience (“how many here arrived by public transit?”)
- share a powerful quote, or poem
- read out a topical news headline
- … or something else
2. Launch into your big compelling hypotheses, position or argument
This is fairly straightforward. What’s your main argument or hypotheses? It should be provocative and compelling in some way. It could just be one statement, like, “When it comes to green tech innovation, Canada is teetering on the cusp of become either a global superstar or an industry laughing stock. Here’s why…”
3. Back it up with supporting points
Next, follow with three to five supporting points or ‘validators’ that back up your main argument. You could transition from the opening position statement above with, “consider this”… then follow with your ‘evidence.’ These supporting points could include statistics, facts, even another story – anything to “back up”, prove or make the case for your key position.
4. Clarify the ‘call to action’
For any kind of social change argument, this is where you lay out the solution: what’s your “call to action”? For whom – who is responsible, and what should they do, exactly? If it’s appropriate, you might also describe the next step. And if there’s a role for the audience to play – even better.
5. Circle back to your opening
Here’s where you wrap it all up with your closing paragraph or statement, circling back to the beginning. Basically, this is where you figuratively say: “Snap! See, that’s why I stand by my argument or position”. It could be a sentence or two related back to your opening story (maybe this is where you roll out the story’s ‘ending’), or your main position, or both.
Beyond the Formula
And again – truly transformational speeches are like works of art – there is no definitive recipe for their creation. For some of the deepest, most powerful resources in the field, check out veteran public speaking trainer Gail Larsen’s Real Speaking site and blog. Gail offers both executive coaching and small-group intensive trainings out of both the US and western Canada (I’ve taken two of her workshops), and her book, Transformational Speaking, is invaluable.