In the introduction to my “Planning to Plan” series, I proposed that leaders ask themselves a few tough questions about this year’s plan:
- Did we have a clear, compelling and attainable vision of what we wanted to accomplish?
- Did our team truly and deeply believe in what we were doing, and why?
- Did we clearly identify our priorities, and what was “out of bounds”?
- Did we encourage our critical thinkers to think critically, and help us face the brutal facts?
- Did our team buy in to an actionable plan that addressed their constraints?
- Did our entire team review and adapt the plan throughout the year?
Today, let’s talk about a key foundational component of any good plan: a clear, compelling and attainable vision. One could write a whole book on developing and articulating a vision (and I may do that!), but let’s stick to the basics here.
In the context of business and organizational planning, what is “the vision”, where does it come from, and how do we maximize its value?
Think of the Vision as a snapshot of our desired future. It’s how we want the future to be better and different; it’s the change we’re working to create; it’s the future that we’re building through our efforts. The Vision is not a description of who we are and what we do (that’s a Mission Statement); it’s not a list of things we want to accomplish (those are Goals); it’s not a description of the approach to get there (that’s Strategy); it’s not milestones along the path (those are Objectives); and it’s not a list of actions we’re going to take (Tactics). Visions aren’t a simple sentence or catch-phrase. Visions are a story about the future.
It’s common for a large organization to have a long term, overarching vision, while individual divisions, departments, or teams develop their own supporting visions. These often have a shorter time horizon, but are still aspirational in nature.
A healthcare organization might tell a story about longer, happier, more productive lives for members of the community. An educational technology company might describe a better world through available and practical education. An industrial products company might envision a safer, cleaner, more productive workplace for their customers, and ultimately for consumers. A department within a larger business might have a vision of collaborating more effectively and adding more value for their internal customers, with less stress and more fun. Your vision will reflect what your team passionately desires to accomplish.
Visions come from many sources. Sometimes the Vision comes from a founder or visionary leader of the organization. Sometimes the Vision is developed and articulated by a Board of Directors. In many cases, the best Vision is distilled from the individual visions of key stakeholders, through a collaborative process. Why? Because to be effective, a Vision needs to be clear, compelling and attainable.
“Clear” means the Vision is easily understood by all stakeholders. This is challenging because all stakeholders don’t share the same history, preferences, personality type and point-of-view. Some stakeholders may not agree that it’s the best vision, or agree that it’s practical, but at a minimum they must understand what we’re trying to create. By including a cross-section of stakeholders in a visioning process, we can incorporate more points-of-view into the development of the Vision, and improve the odds of making it understandable for all stakeholders.
“Compelling” means the Vision Story should be engaging, something stakeholders are (or can become) passionate about. Ultimately, believing in and pursuing the Vision gives stakeholders a reason to come to work, or to volunteer, or to prefer your product or service. A compelling vision attracts like-minded individuals who believe in this version of “the future.” Note that a compelling Vision Story may also repel people who don’t believe in it. As long as the Vision is a faithful representation of what your organization really believes and is working to attain, that’s OK. It’s always best to have a high concentration of “vision believers”. While it’s healthy to have disagreement on how we’re going to accomplish it, it’s rarely productive to have lots of disagreement on the future we’re trying to create, at least not after the Vision has been distilled and articulated. Including a broad sample of stakeholders in the visioning process builds a large pool of rich ideas about the future, and maximizes the richness of the Vision Story.
“Attainable” means the future we describe is actually possible. Stakeholders will quickly lose passion for a vision if they come to believe that it’s impossible. This is a bit of a balancing act. I don’t use the word “achievable”; the vision is not a clearly demarcated goal line we can cross. Long term, aspirational future state visions are very good. We don’t need to know how we’re going to get there yet. Sometimes the hurdles can be very high. But stakeholders must be able to believe that we (and others) can overcome the hurdles with time and work. New methods and technologies may need to be invented… but stakeholders must have confidence that this is possible (and at least somewhat likely). Including critical thinkers and “realists” in the visioning process helps balance the enthusiasm some participants will have for painting an unrealistic vision. Don’t beat down these participants as “naysayers”; it’s better to gather and incorporate their input during the visioning process, versus deal with inevitable push-back later. An effective professional facilitator can keep the tone of the session positive and productive, and help build consensus around a vision more stakeholders believe in.
The best approach to build the Vision depends on the size, scope, structure and history of the organization, as well as the degree to which a vision has previously been built. It’s common to start with small team dialogue or focused conversations on how the organization can help the future be better than the past. Often a historical scan enables the team to better understand patterns of past priorities, decisions and actions; these are important clues to distill the Vision. Consensus workshops are a powerful tool for gathering input from a broad set of stakeholders and building consensus on what’s important. Engage talented story tellers (either members of your own team, or external resources) to draft the Vision Story from the output of your team’s collaborative work. Preview this story with the key stakeholders who participated in earlier discussions and workshops, to gather feedback and refine the story before taking it to the masses.
You don’t need (and almost never want) a new vision every year. But if your vision doesn’t meet the criteria described above, it deserves focus to improve. In my experience, just about everything gets easier after you engage a team behind a clear, compelling and attainable vision. Now is a great time to give this some focus, before the rush to develop more concrete goals and objectives many organizations face in early Q1.