In order to carry a positive action we must develop here a positive vision.Dalai Lama
It would be foolish to think there is one simple answer to organisational health, and yet there has been a trend for claiming that creating a vision or mission is the answer.
Whether watching one of the popular TED talks that tells us about the importance of ‘why’ in leadership, reading perspectives on ancient wisdom about the need to find meaning, looking to our own experiences with organisations and visioning processes or seeking our personal purpose, it’s clear that vision, purpose and meaning are up there as a key ‘expectation’ when it comes to making a difference. In the hallowed halls of business school programmes of the past, you knew you’d ‘made it’ when you were sent on ‘strategizing and visioning for top leaders’.
What is clear to me are some of the myths about shaping the vision and effectively living into it.
- Whatever you call it, just figuring out your vision, purpose or mission and placing your hopes on it for shaping the future is a singular disappointment.
- At the other extreme, relying on a matrix of highly rational and hierarchical structures for planning, that suggests clearly populating dozens of headings will lead to being able to develop an aligned workplace and capacity filled organisation, without real human engagement, is also nonsense.
- It’s seen as the job for our top leadership, and the rest of us should align with what they decide.
- It’s also clear that key words that we think mean the same thing have different meanings to different people. For clarity on the meaning of the different words around vision, it might be helpful to spend four minutes reading this earlier piece on Vision – What’s in a Word?
What’s undeniable is that to build alignment across key leaders and the wider organisation is a key element for any healthy enterprise. Much is said and written about this and it is also acknowledged that it’s rarely done well.
The role of ensuring alignment in hierarchical organisations is firmly in the hands of the leadership team. It makes a significant different to success when as many people as possible across an organisation can influence its future and their working world. For flatter organisations there can be even more individual and mutual responsibility lived in practice.
Without alignment it is highly likely everyone is committed to something at work, the challenge is that it’s often quite different things and directions. Small differences between key players can create confusion, diffusion of effort and a considerably slower pace.
At different times in the life of Oasis, it’s been said of the Directors that ‘you can’t get a razor blade between them’. Despite our differences, we worked them out and were highly aligned. It takes effort and time, but the benefits for all are worth it. When we have a direction and a sense of what we are striving for, we are more potent together.
It doesn’t come down to finding the right marketing phrase or series of sound bites, it takes a rigorous and honest approach that results in something compelling.
There can be many starting points, but one of them for an organisation or key initiative is the question, why do we exist? In Oasis terms we look to this as being our core purpose.
Without this we can become lost and lose our sense of direction, and then anything and everything can be included because there are no boundaries or bold shared vision. Why we exist doesn’t need to be something unique, but it has to be real, authentic and genuine, and go beyond what is ever possible in practice. It is there to be the ‘leading idea’, the aspiration and inspiration for why we even bother.
Finding our purpose isn’t the end point. There then needs to be a shared sense of values and a picture that is more realistic and tangible for what the organisation or initiative will be like in practice as it works towards its purpose or vision. I call this a future picture, something in a manageable timeframe that enables clarity to take shape of what we will be like, what we will be doing, and how we will be behaving in our most important areas.
But first things first, what might help to begin shaping a vision or purpose?
Practice on oneself
If there isn’t previous experience of shaping a vision within an organisation or team it might be worth practising on oneself. Try asking yourself, what is my purpose? What is my vision for myself? Try considering, how do I want my life to be remembered? How do I want to have contributed to the wider world? What would the essence of my life have been about if it had been a life well lived? All this strengthen the vision muscle.
Consider who you want to serve and how they would benefit
Think about the different stakeholders in your life, one at time – family, friends, community, workplace, partner, etc. And how you might want each to benefit from what you do and how you do it. You might ask people who know you well what are the stories or activities they associate with you and as a result, what’s the contribution they see you bring, or what they think you stand for?
Translate the smaller scale approach to the organisation
You could consider what’s important to the organisation about the impact it has or explore a number of possibilities for why it exists. Sit with them to discover what touches or inspires the most. Consider what impact you want to have on customers, community, suppliers, employees or shareholders, or gather stories across stakeholders to understand what they think the organisation stands for, or could stand for.
Each and all of these awaken the possible vision or purpose for why you exist, and what fosters commitment and motivation to be part of it.
Why is that important?
Another approach is the repeating and deepening question… ‘and why is that important?’. Ask a colleague to ask you ‘what’s important to you about what this organisation is about?’, then ask them to ask you the question, and then following each of your responses, ask them to ask you again …’and why is that important?’
It rarely fails to uncover something deeper and more interesting and at its best brings new realisations and insights. After having done it for yourself, go and ask a few others to try it. What you discover can be so helpful in shaping a sense of what we are really here for.
Many of us enable our visioning to emerge through image and pictures rather than words.
Try this by drawing a circle. Segment the circle with three lines creating six ‘pie’ slices. Consider what areas you want to hold in your vision – for instance, resilience, impact, contribution, organisational wellbeing, people, community, wealth, etc. Allow images to come to you and capture them in the areas they belong. Keep it simple, letting your unconscious do some of the work.
If you’re doing it as a team, share your images and what they represent to you in terms of fulfilment in each area. This may need some facilitation, as while the process can be very powerful, it sometimes requires someone to give permission to draw and ‘allow’ a vision/s to emerge.
DIY rather than getting the builders in!
These are just a few starters. This isn’t a process that is done in a 30-minute mind shower session, nor does it need to take years, but consider giving it days rather than hours.
Your vision has to reflect a felt sense of truth, not a neat process that ends with a pithy slogan.
I would also recommend that the job of developing a vision isn’t outsourced. Don’t ask a consultancy to come in and find it for you.
Shaping your purpose, or capturing your vision, is a DIY process. It might need some alongside navigational support in terms of the process, but you wouldn’t ask someone else to shape your life purpose for you, so why do that to your organisation?
It takes enough effort to manage the job our parents did for us in injecting their hopes for our purpose. To ask someone else to do it for us seems a backward step when with some encouragement we are more than capable of doing it for ourselves.
Once a vision has emerged that reflects something worthwhile and inspires those it impacts upon, it’s time to move to the question of values and how we do things around here. More on this next time.