Vision – What’s In A Word?

Having a vision is such a powerful idea and yet it’s so often reduced to an empty marketing or communications message. When it comes to imagining our direction, a word such as vision carries many meanings. Other words are often used interchangeably, and different people consider vision in different ways and from different points of view. A lack of clarity on what we mean invariably leads to unhelpful behaviours:

We spent nearly two hours talking about ‘strategy’ before the team coach recognised that we had seven people in the room and every single person meant something different by the word. We spent the next hour gaining a shared understanding – it was worth the effort.

Senior leader in an energy company

Lack of shared understanding of key words leads to a fudge. We might have the impression of pace and progress to begin with, but not taking time to clarify what we are talking about can critically sabotage the work later. It results in different people using the same words but meaning quite different things and therefore doing and fostering quite different things.

It is really helpful for a group or organisation to have a shared language that is clear and has similar meaning that is common and owned by most people involved, if not all. It may take a little more time at the start, but good contracting and gained shared understanding is worth the effort and helps sustain commitment and reduce unnecessary anxiety and confusion over the longer term.

Why all the fuss, we never needed to be clear before?

The point in an organisation’s life when these issues emerge is often when it’s looking beyond the present and is involved in some form of intelligent imagining process, which basically is about considering the longer term and gaining some kind of commitment to it. Pioneers and early innovators don’t need to spend much time on these things, as they simply ‘know’ what they are about, why they are doing it and if successful have been able to convey enough of this to others to energise, engage and act in ways that make a positive difference.

Thinking longer term, talking about values, purpose and mission often comes when an enterprise needs to engage larger numbers of people or critical supporters, perhaps employees or key stakeholders, and this often comes with a phase change or transition point in an organisation’s journey.

Getting back to basics

One aspect of what I’ve found useful in this transition phase is to take stock of where we are. Sometimes we all get lost in the doing and lose sight of where we are heading, what we stand for or how our thinking differs from those alongside us. We might have enjoyed significant success, grown rapidly, or founders may have moved on. We might have added ways of working or activities because that’s just how it’s happened, or it may be something of everything, and in the busyness we have forgotten what it’s all about. If lots of new people have joined, we may no longer have enough people who know what we are about. In a rapidly changing external context, it might also be that we have run out of road, what we were about is losing relevance and we need to renew our direction and our understanding of why we are here, what we are doing it all for, and for whom.

Meaning rather than individual words

I want to begin by stepping away from the specific words and start with a sense of what is helpful to have in place. So rather than defining each word (because the definitions change depending on which country, consultancy or organisation you are in), the bullet points offer the meaning first and then highlight the words that are often used to refer to each aspect.

In the actual practice of shaping the future (and getting there) there seem to be eight minimum elements that contribute to shaping the direction and implementation, whether it be a whole organisation, community, or part of an enterprise.

  • Why do we exist? (Mission, Purpose, Vision)
  • What will we value? (Values, Values Statement)
  • What will we be like? (Behaviours, Attitudes, Expectations)
  • What will we be doing? (Vision, Future Picture)
  • What is our plan to get from here to there? (Strategy, Plan, Strategic Approach)
  • What is most important, right now?
  • What needs to be in place/changed for our plan to work, including systems, processes, people, behaviours, etc?
  • What are the details of the plan that will help us progress, including who will do what, milestones, measures and activities?

Be clear and aligned

At one level it may not matter what words you use to describe the various aspects. What does seem to be important is that the words are aligned and mean the same thing, and that if new approaches are introduced, decisions are made as to which words refer to which aspects and activities. In a process that is about shaping direction, being clear that how you go about it signals the kind of approaches you want in the future. I think wherever possible it’s better to model clarity and alignment than confusion and ambiguity.

Getting started

We’ve been working in these areas for decades, both in relation our own direction, creating and renewing where and what Oasis is about, and with a range of client organisations and sectors.

Aligned to this blog I was asked to write something for the members of the Oasis RAW (Resilience and Wellbeing) Network about shaping a vision. Whilst it’s not yet available for wider distribution if you’d like a copy send me an email and I’ll forward you the summary.