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.
Facilitating a planning session for a first-time client? Avoid blindsides! Here’s a list of key questions that can help you walk in well-prepared and armed with knowledge about the real purpose, the group, the cuture, the context, and the space itself.
So you’ve been hired to facilitate a strategic planning session for a new client group or team. You want to offer maximum value, and you definitely do NOT want to get blindsided by unexpected eruptions from the Board or staff, or by your own ignorance of their culture, context or decision-making protocols. How do you best begin scoping the project?
As with all facilitation, investing in solid preparation pays off in the form of a richer, better use of precious face-to-face time. I was recently doing a little technical coaching for another facilitator, as she got ready to shepherd a campaign strategy session with a first-time client. It got me thinking about the sorts of questions I typically ask at the beginning of a new project. Some of these questions would also be useful when doing a fuller assessment at the beginning of an organizational change initiative, although that would require more robust preparation. Meanwhile, here’s a list of things to consider even for facilitating a one-off meeting.
- Purpose: Why now? What is the overarching purpose of this session?
- Outcomes: What would “wild success” look like for this session, specifically? What specific outcomes might the team be hoping for?
- Timing: Where does this session fit contextually – is it part of a larger planning process? At the tail end of one? Are folks exhausted from planning? Excited and eager?
- Experience: What planning frameworks and processes has this group done in the past? What about the styles and approaches of past facilitators?
- Attitudes: What are the attitudes folks have toward planning in general? (Flakey? Waste of time? Exciting? Overdue?)
- Energy: How much bandwidth do folks have for this process?
- Conflict: How is conflict handled by the group, traditionally?
- Norms: How are decisions made in this group (Consensus? Majority voting? One decision-maker?) And who makes them – Board only? Executive and Management Team only? Everyone? Is it different for certain kinds of decisions?
- Decision-makers: Does anyone NOT in the room need to be consulted before decisions are final? This is almost always the case for coalition meetings, for example.
Scoping out the participants can be tricky, but the more I can know about who’s going to be in the room – and who isn’t – the more I can tailor the agenda design to the group’s real needs. So I might ask:
- Participants: Who’s going to be in the room in terms of:
- rank and power
- institutional knowledge/history
- relationships and influence
- skills, including strategic ability and experience
- Is the Board included in the session? Staff? What about key consultants or partners? What about founding directors? Why or why not?
- What about participants’ primary leadership styles? Do they tend to be focused on details? Great at generating ideas/innovative? Tend to highlight risks/downsides? Tend to highlight possible benefits/upsides? Comfortable or even drawn to conflict? Conflict-averse?
- Influencers: And here’s a key one: who’s NOT going to be in the room that has influence on the dynamics or the outcome from the outside?
- Pre-work: How much pre-work can we do in terms of sharing information through prepared briefing notes or other materials? Examples might include:
- Having group members prepare advance briefing notes to bring everyone up to speed on key topics in advance
- Conducting interviews and/or on-line surveys
- Conducting pre-session scoping meetings or focus groups with smaller numbers of the team?
- Any other research or data-gathering that I or someone on the team might need to do to make the best use of our face to face time together
- Orientation: What do I need to know about the group’s culture and ‘language’? For example, I once needed to develop a glossary of acronyms before being able to effectively work with one science-based land use coalition, in order to keep up with flipcharting and the direction of the content. With other groups I’ve needed to memorize the spelling and pronunciation of traditional First Nation names. With some, I’ve needed to avoid terms like “energy” (“atmosphere” might be OK) or business planning concepts like “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).
- Documentation: How will decisions be documented? This is key. If no one takes notes, or if the group relies only on my short-hand flipchart notes, there’s a risk that key decisions and ideas won’t be carried forward – rendering the whole exercise a waste of time. And note-taking is a critical skill – it requires being able to listen, type and sort for key ideas at the same time; it is a powerful role, not at all a ‘junior’ one as some mistakenly assume
- Venue: What kind of physical space will we have? Natural light? Access to outdoors? Easy access to breakout spaces? Room to stand and spread out? Ample space for posting flipcharts?
- Room set-up: What kind of restrictions might we have in terms of room set-up? For example, seating arrangements need to account for some participants joining in as ‘disembodied beings’ by speakerphone, skype, or videoconference. Seats might also need to be adjusted if everyone needs to be able to face a single wall to view a visual presentation.
- Location: What about the location – is it easy to access by transit or bike? Is there access to outdoors with the option of doing any work outside?
- Food and drinks: What about food and refreshments? I strongly advise having beverages (at least tea/coffee, herbal tea and plenty of water) at the outset of the session, and for every break – that way participants can refresh themselves throughout the day. I also advise that all break snacks include healthy, high fibre finger foods: nuts, fresh fruit, raw veggies, possibly cheese or yoghurt – with the addition of carby, sugary wheat-based things like muffins as an option. Usually it’s the other way around: all starch and sugar, which pretty well guarantees a group-wide sugar crash at about 2 pm
- Timing: Are there fixed times for lunch or breaks? I generally try to schedule breaks every 90 minutes; is that an option? Do we need extra time prior to the meeting to set up the room or will that be done by the facility? Do we need to push the start time back due to any participants commuting in that morning?
- Equipment: What kind of equipment will be provided? Typical equipment includes: at least one flipchart pad and stand; odor-free markers (some participants are sensitive); masking tape; various sizes and colours of Post-it notes; sticky dots for “dotmocracy” exercises; an LCD projector, table, and 3-pronged extension cords, along with various Mac laptop adapters for the projector. I always have my own portable equipment for local work, but often rely on clients to provide these items when I’m working out of town.
Do you have other questions you typically ask? War stories to share about the impact of NOT asking certain questions? I’d love to hear them!
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.
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.