Author: Grant Freedman The concept of a vision that serves as a guiding star towards which an organisation inexorably moves is part of virtually every organisation's vocabulary.  Most organisations have a written vision statement.  In most, this statement provides, at best, some vague sentences about something that is to be striven for - and something which is never attained.  A compelling vision can provide a powerful unifying force that guides people at all levels of the organisation in the way they do their work every day.  Yet this is often not the case, because the full value of what can be leveraged from the vision is not extracted. We regularly work with organisations in which a clear understanding of what reaching the ideal of the vision will entail is absent, or clear only to the select few at the top of the organisation.  Without this clarity, there can be no conscious connection between the activities of the rest of the organisation and the pursuit of the vision.  These days, the literature on leadership emphasises the need to have leaders at all levels in the organisation, driving it forward.  The vision can provide a useful tool to align leaders at all levels, allowing them to exercise discretion, make decisions and perform work that translates into a critical mass of co-ordinated effort that drives the organisation towards its guiding star...

Concepts closely related to that of vision in a strategic trilogy are mission and values.  We argue that the mission of an organisation is to move from its current state to the desired future position and that the overarching task of the leaders at all levels is to strive to achieve the organisation's mission.  Leaders at all levels determine why, what, when, where and how resources are sourced and applied and what methods are used to perform work.  They also knit together the social systems that make up a business, managing the human interfaces with colleagues, suppliers and clients.  Values currently receive a good deal of attention, with many efforts to translate these into clear descriptions of how people are expected to behave whilst executing the mission. The question is how can leaders at all levels guide the organisation effectively toward the achievement of this mission if it remains merely a one or two-sentence statement on a poster and has not been explored to make it a true guiding beacon? Unless one adopts a rigorous command-and-control type culture (which can stifle initiative and slow down decision-making), it is difficult to keep efforts focused, efficient and integrated with key organisational priorities, objectives and standards.  Whilst values are a powerful unifying tool, describing how people should behave, it is equally essential to develop the picture of what people are striving for - the vision, to really leverage efforts.  Building out the vision of the organisation can provide leaders at all levels with a framework that guides their efforts and ensures that they are focused in the same direction. Figure 1 shows the task of leadership at all levels to take the organisation from the current circumstances (point X) towards the point where the ideals illustrated by the vision are the reality (point Y), over time.  Building out the vision (point a) relates to the processes involved in creating a shared understanding of the desired future reality for the organisation.  Using the vision statement as a guide, the vision may be explored in a number of ways and using a number of different approaches, at the various levels of the organisation.  Some organisations prefer a top-down approach while others prefer more bottom-up input. [caption id="attachment_78" align="alignnone" width="495" caption="Figure 1"][/caption] Figure 1:  Building out the Vision provides a clear strategic framework for leaders at all levels. Building out the vision must attempt to describe the desired future of the organisation as clearly as possible in terms of issues such as:

  • Core business
  • Geographic distribution
  • Shape, size and boundaries
  • Markets, industries and clients
  • Key partnerships and relationships
  • Products and services
  • People and work
  • Technology orientation
  • Competitive advantage
  • Values
  • Triple bottom-line results

This process is like creating and colouring in the picture of what leaders want the organisation to be in time.  This serves to align people and create a shared context for decisions and actions.  In Gestalt terms, it assists leaders to make quality contact with phenomena in the interactive field and to bring those that are relevant into the foreground.  Almost as importantly, the process assists leaders to relegate those phenomena that are less relevant to the background.  This promotes awareness and understanding and will enhance the ability of people to make decisions appropriate to the achievement of the vision.  The goal should be to spread this understanding as widely as possible to create a shared understanding. Building out the vision creates a clearer strategic framework against which strategic development decisions (point b) can be made.  The process should be managed at two levels.  Firstly, people at the appropriate levels need to have different levels of understanding of the built out vision in order for them to do their work in an empowered way, where they have the freedom to exercise initiative, but where combined efforts still remain integrated and co-ordinated.  Secondly, this understanding must be cascaded downwards from strategic decisions, to tactical actions (point c) and to operational priorities (point d). Leaders should constantly be translating the vision into strategic initiatives, tactical actions and operational priorities that make it easy for all the people in the organisation to perform their work in such a way that it drives the entire organisation to the point where the vision becomes reality.  Strategic priorities may then be identified and decisions may be made.   Tactical decisions can also be made according to the strategic framework, underpinned by the strategic priorities.  Operational priorities may then be aligned with the tactical decisions at the appropriate time.  At the same time, leaders doing strategic, tactical and operational work must be able to keep their eyes on the guiding star of the vision. Not only does this approach align and focus leaders, it allows leaders at all levels to align and focus their people in pursuit of a consistent goal, with a clear understanding of why certain things are happening, what, when, where and how they are happening and what their own particular roles are.  This promotes focus, integration and co-ordination and creates an environment in which people can be empowered to take true ownership of their work.