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—Carole S. Napolitano

"For how many of you is this the ‘V’ word?”

“How many of you are troubled by the notion that the role of visionary — something that you were never trained in and that did not appear in your original job description has now become an expectation?”

"How many of you believe that being a visionary has a lot to do with being born that way or with fasting for days on a California mountaintop?”

I find myself treading cautiously these days when introducing the topic of vision in a management training seminar. The reason? Because of a need to defuse a range of negative emotions — from nagging discomfort to outright hostility — that the subject of vision is bound to elicit among an audience of managers.

Discomfort for some because creating a vision is not very “businesslike” in the traditional sense. Visions are about wishes and dreams and hopes and ideals and imagining — none of which may seem to have a lot to do with the tough realities of the business at hand: ROA and market share and the like. Visions are a right-brained activity in what has always been a left-brained world. So if people feel discomfort about creating visions, it may be because the process seems counter-culture and, most damming, “soft.”

Others may chafe not because they disagree with the legitimacy of the process, but because they’re not sure they have what it takes. “Visionary” is a daunting term that calls to mind mystical experiences and larger-than-life figures — more than most of us can aspire to day-to-day. After all, as Marshall McLuhan reminds us, visionary is the word we reserve for our wisest, our “seers.” We know that there is risk and daring in visions — truly the hallmark of leadership — and we question whether we’re up to the task.

Still others are disillusioned as a result of having watched visioning become corrupted in their organizations — just one more faddish management gimmick that gets misunderstood and misapplied, capriciously, amidst much hoopla but minus any real commitment. So much so, that in some organizations any vision is viable only until another “better” idea comes along — the “vision-of-the-mouth” syndrome you might say. This approach, of course, undermines the formidable power visions have for transforming organizations. One manager in a public service organization offered this sardonic description of how vision was “embraced” in his agency. We’re told that we expressed in very succinct, technical and often dry terms — “bulletized” speech if you will.

A good vision statement begins with a future orientation and often has as much to do with how we will function as with the results we want to produce. In terms of expression, a good vision statement is characterized by concrete detail, sensory imagery, colorful language, symbols, and figures of speech.

Does a good vision statement have anything to do with “God, mother, and apple pie”? Yes! — to the extent that it inspires us to pursue ideals we have not yet realized. A good vision statement is not, on the other hand, yet another lip-service recitation of cliched abstractions like “quality” and “customer service” or superlatives like being “first” and “best” — in the absence of any real sense of what these terms mean in our organization or how we will know when we have achieved them.

A striking example of the descriptive power of a vision statement comes from Ralph Stayer, head of Johsonville Sausage. When Stayer realized that, despite the success of the company, many of its employees were bored and unmotivated, largely as a result of his own expectation that they would follow him the way buffalo follow their leader — blindly, he came to see the implicit risk: like buffalo which nearly became extinct because hunters quickly discovered that they could immobilize an entire herd and exterminate them one by one by simply killing the leader, Stayer’s organization was vulnerable by virtue of Stayer’s having assumed total responsibility for its direction.

When he envisioned the type or organization he needed to create, what he saw was a flock of geese on the wing ... not an organizational chart with traditional lines and boxes, but a “V” of individual contributors who know the common goal, take turns leading, and, like geese who fly in a wedge but land in waves, adjust their structure to the task at hand all the while assuming personal responsibility for their own performance.

How does one learn to be a visionary? Being a visionary does not require a rare talent or a crystal ball. On the contrary, creating a vision has a lot in common with daydreaming or fantasizing — which most of us are very good at! Consider, for example, how often you see something in your mind’s eye — the details of an upcoming event or vacation, what it would be like to start your own business, your child grown up and successful, etc.

So the process of creating a vision involves applying something that comes naturally to an organizational context. It’s a question of thinking in the future perfect tense — as if something in the future has already happened — so that we are able to see possibilities in rich detail.

How does a vision function as a business tool?

A vision serves the interests of organizations in a number of ways.

—It reflects core values. The process of creating a picture of what we desire is really the process of making concrete and, as a result, getting more clear about what we hold “near and dear” — the core values that we will commit to. There are any number of values available to us — innovation, competence, teamwork, mutual respect, continuous learning, honesty, just to name a few. But since we can’t be all things to all people, deciding what values are most important to us is a way of achieving focus and direction. If what you see when you picture the desired end state for your organization includes people from various functions sitting around a table addressing problems openly and non-defensively and people from across the organization sharing resources, then one of the values you’ve clarified as important for you is collaboration.

—It enables decision making and problem solving at the lower levels of the organization. A vision provides a context for decision making: when everyone is clear about where we’re trying to head and how we want to make that happen. Choices become more obvious and many decisions virtually make themselves.

A colleague tells the story of having been in a lunch place where he was served an inedible Reuben sandwich (he described it as purple!). When he called for the check and the waitress noticed that he had barely touched the sandwich, she offered her apologies and suggested that she get him another. He thanked her but indicated that he was out of time in response to which she explained that she would like to be able to void his check, but “only the manager can authorize that and he’s not here right now.” This is a classic case of disempowering the employee who has all the right instincts about what needs to happen to make the dream of a successful lunch happy (happy customers, return business, etc.) come true.

—It provides a measure of performance. The extent to which an individual is or is not acting in a way that helps to make the vision a reality ought to influence the way his/her performance is appraised. People do what they get rewarded for. Measuring performance against progress toward the vision is a way of institutionalizing support for doing the right things right.

—It allows diverse efforts. Because the vision is “the big picture,” it fosters the kind of interdependence which is fundamental to the notion of organization.

In today’s highly complex organizations where the talents of knowledge workers become increasingly specialized, the vision allows a variety of efforts and functions to come together in ways that are collaborative and synergistic — and profitable.

—It unleashes energy and creativity. Most important, a vision, by appealing to people’s longings and capturing their imaginations, taps a motivation for work that surpasses contractual obligations and makes the work its own reward. Doing what we are told often breeds mindless compliance, disengagement, and even alienation. Pursuing a vision engenders involvement, ownership, and commitment. Viktor Frankl, in his classic essay, Man’s Search for Meaning, explains that the very survival of individuals overwhelmed by the agonies of life in the concentration camp ultimately depended on their ability to transcend the present through vision of something meaningful in the future... “It is a peculiarity that he can only live by looking into the future...And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence....”

Frankl then recalls a point when he had become disgusted by his obsession with the trivia of subsistence in the camp — what would he eat? Should he trade his last cigarette? Could he find a fragment of wire for a shoelace?

“Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp...By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation....”

Although there is no obvious comparison between victims in a concentration camp and members of organizations today, the principle of motivation Frankl describes holds true. How we choose to “see” our role has everything to do with the level and kind of response we enable ourselves to make.

Where does a vision come from? If a vision is a “possible” dream, then it doesn’t come out of thin air or whole cloth. Creating a vision starts with a realistic assessment of those things, both externally as well as internally, that will affect what we do.

A good place to start is by scanning the environment to identify forces on the horizon that are shaping the future of our enterprise. Specific examples would include things like trends, demographics, technologies, etc., and are gleaned from a variety of sources including lectures, media, colleagues, etc. Armed with this global view, the next step is to assess the organization to determine strengths, limitations, talents, technologies — all of those things that represent resources or constraints. Ultimately, the question is, given what we have to work with, what difference can we make.

The answer is the vision.

Who should create the vision? This is a difficult question about which there is some confusion and disagreement. Although it is not uncommon for organizations to impose a vision created by the CEO or an executive committee at the top, this is just one more example of the kind of control that encourages compliance and dependency rather than ownership and commitment.

Ultimately, it is up to each individual to create a vision for his/her own contribution (and which only he/she can be accountable to). The role of management, however, is to create and communicate visions for themselves and their levels of the organization that reflect an awareness of what the organization and its people are all about — the “collective yearnings” as Kouzes and Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge call it. Within this overarching scheme, individuals can then more clearly see their roles in both supporting others’ visions and in living out their own so that personal as well as organizational needs are served.

A particularly eloquent testimony to the power of vision came recently from the lips not of yet another theorist but of one who had literally “been through the war.” The day the first troops arrived home from the Persian Gulf, a radio journalist was describing the scene — cheering crowds, faces beaming with pride, tears and smiles and hugs, wives and children and mothers and fathers and friends, American flags and yellow ribbons. He then turned to a soldier caught up in the embrace of his welcoming family and queried, “Did you ever imagine this day happening?”

“Oh, yeh,...over and over...this is what keeps you going.”



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