Shared Vision: Waste of Time or Essential for Success?

One of the central themes of A New Workplace is the effort to define a vision* for the places we work.  The value of developing a shared vision is sometimes taken for granted.  But it’s not without good reason that we often run into resistance when trying to undertake these exercises in the workplace.

Do we really need to talk about vision, or is it just a waste of our time?

Here’s the short version:

We’re all busy.  We all have plenty of “real work” that needs to be done, all the time.  So, yes, talking about our vision can be a frustrating waste of time that could have been spent doing something productive.  This happens when we emphasize what the vision says.

The way around this is to focus on what the vision actually does.

We have the ability to make things better than they are right now.  But any improvement to the workplace requires that we first articulate a vision of what that something better actually looks like.  So, yes, visions are necessary for improvement.

But visions aren’t magic.  They don’t automatically produce the desired results just because we write them down.  The vision needs to actually do something or, more precisely, to cause us to do something, consistently, for a long time.  After we take that first step, we then have to figure out how to use the vision.  We have to actually get to work and take action that moves us towards making that vision a reality.

Here’s the long version:

Bringing up “vision” evokes different responses from different people.  Some people get excited because to them the topic is fun and inspiring.  Others groan or roll their eyes, remembering hours of wasted time, time that they’ll never get back, time spent on meaningless fluff when they could have been doing actual work.

Who’s right?  I suspect both perspectives are legitimate.  I wouldn’t disagree that many millions of man hours have been wasted in organizational visioning processes.  I’ve been part of some excruciating experiences in the name of drafting a vision statement.  And, at the same time, improvement can and does happen, and real value can flow from people who hold a vision of something better for themselves and their group.

In my past negative experiences, part of the frustration came from the effort put into the wording and trying to get consensus on “perfect language.”  Inevitably, some people demanded that we include their pet phrases.  We would go round and round (and round and round and round) trying to get the statement just right.  (Cue images of people searching for sharp objects to jab through their eyeballs.)  To add insult to the injury, we wound up forgetting about the statement we put all that effort into.  It just didn’t make any difference to what we did or how we did it.  I’m not alone in those experiences.  With all that baggage, it’s easy to understand anyone’s skepticism about vision statements.

So where does that leave us?  Do we just write off visions as a frivolous emotional indulgence?  Do we try anyway, blindly hoping that things will work out differently this time?

I think part of the answer lies in our intention for the process–what are we actually trying to accomplish and why?  Like I said before, in my bad experiences, we worked a lot on what the vision “is”–debating the specific wording.  In spite of that effort, the end product had no effect on our behavior.  We produced “a vision,” but it didn’t actually “do” anything.  We approached the exercise as if the words themselves were what mattered most without much thought for what effect the words would actually have on us.  That looks like a recipe for cynicism.

I think the solution is found in this statement from the book, The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge:

It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.

There’s no doubt that visions can be maddening and their results impotent.  But there’s a fundamentally different way to approach a vision, and the above statement captures this difference.

Visions aren’t magic.  Writing out a vision isn’t like waiving a magic wand that turns us into what we say we want.  Defining the vision is just the very first step of what’s probably a very long journey.  It’s got to be followed by a lot of hard work.

So, instead of wordsmithing, we can choose to concern ourselves with what the vision does to us and what we do with the vision and as a result of the vision.  We can choose to be less concerned about getting the wording perfect.  We can be less focused on producing something worthy of a plaque to proudly hang on the wall.  We can instead be more interested in whether the statement, even if it’s not eloquent, captures what we actually want for ourselves and our organization.  We can honestly ask ourselves whether it portrays something we’re willing to put effort into and to consistently and persistently work toward.  We can put effort into figuring out how to make sure we actually use the vision to help shape our actions.  We can then do the painful stuff that the vision requires of us.

It’s about aspiration.

At its best, working out a shared vision is about connecting with our capacity for aspiration.  A capacity for aspiration is the ability to recognize that there’s something better than what we now have or now are.  We realize we want something different.  We give that recognition some shape in our our mind. We believe that it might be possible to move a little closer to that image.

A capacity for aspiration is essential for any change, for any improvement, and for accomplishing anything meaningful in life.  Aspiration for a shared vision can actually “do” something for a group of people.  And that’s why it’s worth our time and energy to work towards forming a shared vision.

I don’t particularly care what our vision looks like.  I don’t care if it would win an award or how it would look in fancy vinyl lettering.  But I do care about the quality of my workplace and what it could be, and I do care whether I work in a place where people share an ideal that motivates them to give the effort and do the work that’s required to actually improve things for each other and the clients they serve.

Give this some thought.  What kinds of experiences have you had creating a vision with a group?  What could have made those experiences more positive?  How do you feel about spending time discussing your vision for your workplace?

*If the word “vision” turns you off, feel free to choose a different word.  Use goal, objective, ambition, target, destination, desire, or target.  Any word that brings to mind a desired future state will work.

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