What’s in a word? Vision

Astronaut walking on the moon

In this post which originally appeared on his blog, SWF-supported PhD student Keith Elford writes about the meaning of ‘vision’

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Developing a vision statement is a standard ingredient of organisational change management, but the statement itself is less important than the process of creating it.

One of the things I have to do with new clients is to establish a common vocabulary – so many of the most common management words are used in different ways in different places. “Vision” is one of these. For some it’s used to describe the organisation’s ultimate objective – “the world we want to see”. Sometimes it describes a particular ambition, what Jim Collins calls a BHAG, a big, hairy, audacious goal, such as that announced by Kennedy to Congress on May 25, 1961, that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”.

All these have their value, but I usually use the term in the sense defined by Kotter, as “an imaginable picture of the future”, one which describes the state of affairs in an organisation at a given point in the medium-term future. (1) It is a vivid description, not only of what the organisation is achieving but how it is working, what it is like.

Why does this help? The obvious reason is that if you know where you want to get to, you can plan the route by working backwards from the destination. But, as John Beckford pointed out in a recent blog, which I shared with my email list, the definition of the outcome matters more than the plan, which will almost inevitably prove inadequate in practice: “commit to the outcome and be prepared to change the plan”. (2) This commitment to the outcome acts as a constant challenge to find ways round the obstacles and difficulties which are almost bound to arise.

A vision is also valuable in that (if done well) it inspires and motivates. It can help to overcome the preference for the known, safe and familiar which characterises most of us and so can be important in winning support for change and can continue to do so even in the face of the inevitable obstacles and difficulties.

All these things are important – but I want to argue that,

the greatest value in developing a vision is not so much the statement that results, but the process of creating it. If we do this so that there is wide participation it can help us to enable people to see the need for change and to see and own new possibilities.

Vision setting needs careful framing. Vision should be the product, the output or result of a conversation which brings together two vital ingredients. The first is a renewed, reflective, engagement with the question of organisational identity, particularly purpose. We must ask “what are we here for, what truly matters to us when we strip back all the things we do because we do and have forgotten why?” The second, more analytical, conversation involves a deep look at what is going on in our world and how it is changing. These two explorations, brought together, lead us to ask: “what might a future in which we remain ourselves and yet meet new challenges and opportunities look like?” As we contemplate possible and desirable futures, we can ask “why not?” This does not mean that we end up making merely romantic commitments. The point is that such a conversation has the ability, if well managed, to open up the imagination, to surface and challenge limiting assumptions. And the question is not only what might we need to do, what we might be able to achieve; it is what could we, should we, become in order to flourish in the future?

Sometimes the future is hard to imagine in as specific terms as Kotter recommends, because the world is changing too fast, or because there is too much we don’t know. The conversation still matters, however, because it is useful, firstly, to acknowledge that we need a new future even if we don’t know yet what it is and, secondly, because from such conversations come intuitions and preliminary sketches of the future. This can lead us into authorised experimentation, piloting, in which we explore what the future might or could look like and to start building it.

And, let’s be honest, we can’t control the future anyway. It will almost certainly be different from what we imagined. A vision should never turn into a set of targets: it’s not the details that matter. Its greatest value is in freeing up our minds now, and in operating as an inspiration and guide, not in giving us a blueprint for the future.

References:

  1. John Kotter, Leading Change, Harvard Business Review Press, 2012. The reference to Kotter does not imply that I endorse his whole methodology about which I have reservations
  2. https://beckfordconsulting.com/misc/knowing-what-and-why-is-not-the-same-as-knowing-how/