Vision statements are a central, and often maligned, part of most strategy processes. When done right, they can create energy from intrinsic motivation. When done wrong, they can breed cynicism and get ignored.
What makes a vision strategic? How does a vision become a shared vision?
Strategic visioning is the activity that:
- Explores possible futures,
- Sifts through the uncertainty,
- Locks down an “official future” (for now), and
- Answers the question: “What do we want to create?”
It sometimes follows an activity of scenario planning.
A strategic vision is the “What?” that complements the “Why?” found in a purpose or mission and the “How?” outlined by the core values. Together, they form the governing ideas for an organization.
Strategic visioning is different than strategic planning. Strategic planning tends to focus on today’s problems instead of tomorrow’s opportunities. A strategic vision is not a solution to a problem. Visioning, as an activity, should be ongoing, and never ending.
Strategic planning, unlike strategic visioning, tends to be constrained by the current structures of the organization:
“Strategic visioning often leads to a fundamental change in the basic architecture of a corporation. Strategic planning usually operates within the existing architecture.” - James Martin, “The Great Transition”
In his book, “The Fifth Discipline” (Chapter 10: Shared Vision), Peter Senge took the concept of Strategic Visioning and clarified the significance (and challenges) of making it a truly shared vision for the people in the organization.
He explains that visions, by nature, are personal. No one can give another person his or her vision. A vision is something that an individual feels strongly about, and deep caring is personal. This is what makes it a source of energy and passion.
Senge stresses that shared visions for an organization emerge from personal visions - always. Our traditional ideas of vision are that it is passed top-down from within a hierarchy. We’ve all seen examples of when leaders go off to a 3-day offsite and come back with a strategic vision statement. But these visions rarely spark energy and passion, and Senge explains why.
Visions gain strength from deep caring, and caring can never be coerced. When one person’s vision (i.e. a leader’s personal vision) is imposed on an organization, it removes the freedom of choice that gives a vision its power and energy.
Shared visions are possible since people have a strong desire to feel connected to something bigger. A shared vision can give coherence to a set of diverse activities. When truly shared, it acts as an invisible force, driving alignment across the organization.
Senge considers a shared vision to be a key enabler of the “learning organization.” He adds, “Without a pull towards some goal which people truly want to achieve, the forces in support of the status quo can be overwhelming.” It provides the focus and energy for learning.
It also fosters risk taking and experimentation:
“When people are immersed in a vision, they often don’t know how to do it. They run an experiment. They change direction and run another experiment. Everything is an experiment, but there is no ambiguity. It’s perfectly clear why they are doing what they are doing.”
The energy in an organization derives from the healthy tension between “the way things are now” and “the way we want things to be”. Senge explains, “Those who will contribute the most towards realizing a lofty vision will be those who can ‘hold’ this creative tension: remain clear on the vision and continue to inquire into current reality.” When the gap between current reality and the vision is too large, the tension can snap like a rubber band. This is why the discussion of personal visions (based on personal experiences of the current reality) are so crucial in achieving a shared vision.
But how do shared visions emerge from a set of personal visions?
Slowly, and continuously.
Leaders challenge individuals to develop their own personal visions for the organization, shaped by their local experiences. Leaders then actively seek out and listen to these personal visions, to help shape their own personal vision. Then they share their own personal vision and ask others to listen and respond, in turn.
Senge says, “Leaders intent on building shared visions must be willing to continually share their personal visions and ask, ‘Will you follow me?’” Visions that are truly shared will take time to emerge. They grow as a by-product of individual interactions and discussions about individual visions.
Most critically, a shared vision can’t be imposed on an organization. To illustrate this point, Senge introduced the concept of a Compliance Ladder, to show the range of responses that individuals can have to a leader’s vision:
Credit: “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge, p. 203.
- Commitment - Wants it. Will make it happen. Creates whatever “laws” (structures) are needed.
- Enrollment - Wants it. Will do whatever can be done within the “spirit of the law”.
- Genuine compliance - Sees the benefits of the vision. Does everything expected and more. Follows the “letter of the law”. “Good soldier”.
- Formal compliance - On the whole, sees the benefits of the vision. Does what’s expected and no more. “Pretty good soldier”.
- Grudging compliance - Does not see the benefits of the vision. But also, does not want to lose job. Does enough of what’s expected because he has to, but also lets it be known that he is not really on board.
- Noncompliance - Does not see the benefit of vision and will not do what’s expected. “I won’t do it; you can’t make me.”
- Apathy - Neither for nor against vision. No interest. No energy. “Is it 5 o’clock yet?”
There is nothing you can do to force another person to enroll or commit. It requires freedom of choice.
But this is a difficult approach for traditional, hierarchical leaders to embrace.
He says that leaders should be willing to follow these guidelines to spark enrollment and commitment:
- Be enrolled yourself - “selling” is not enrolling
- Be on the level - don’t inflate benefits or sweep problems under the rug
- Let the other person choose - you don’t have to “convince” others of the benefits. Create the time and space for others to create their own sense of vision
There is a parallel here to the tradeoffs and benefits of decentralized decision making. If leaders can embrace the idea that decentralized decision making improves the speed and quality of decisions by leveraging fresh, front line information, then they should be able to embrace the idea of soliciting personal visions from those same individuals on the front lines. The aggregation of these personal visions can yield a more compelling and comprehensive shared vision, when given the chance.
Shifting the approach for strategic visioning from “producing a document” to a continuous, collective activity requires a strong buy-in to Senge’s belief that a shared vision can be a “force of impressive power.” He adds:
“In a corporation, a shared vision changes people’s relationship to the company. It is no longer ‘their company’, it becomes ‘our company’.” A shared vision is the first step in allowing people who mistrusted each other to begin to work together.”