The power of vision in planning for business success

In the last blog we spoke about the tendency to stay indecisive, while we wait for more certainty around us. But such certainty may not come, or may come  too late for us to act. A different way of tackling such a situation is to decide on the basis of probability. But to know the probabilities inherent in a situation means you need to know quite a lot about what is going on! Holding opposing ideas at the same time is the purpose of scenarios, of which we will learn more in a later posting. In this post we want to explore how to tap the power of vision.

What is vision?

Vision is a valuable way of using imagination to see possible futures and, out of them, to shape a future we desire. What does success look like? The clearer our vision the more likely we are to succeed. Vision can be as basic as seeing yourself enjoying a good meal or a fantastic holiday; or you might use it to explore what you wish your life to become. More particularly we can use it, for example, to imagine what success looks like for our organisation or community.  What these ideas have in common, is that they are about a future yet to be achieved. Visioning is a positive exercise, without which we might drift at the mercy of the wind or dissipate our energies in worrying!

Some people practise vision as part of their profession – authors and artists, for instance, regale us with imagined places or experiences. Architects imagine buildings as-yet-unbuilt, and by doing so invent the spaces in which we live and work. Engineers produce artefacts that they conjure up in their imagination. We all, willy-nilly, imagine what will be. Properly directed, imagination can enable us and our colleagues to co-create desired visions of the future. Not only do you arrive at a shared vision, but also as you bring people into closer relationship, you develop the team that will realise that vision.

Visioning is best done as a collaborative exercise. No one individual has the whole picture but everyone will have fragments that we can integrate, tapping the diversity of the group.  Here we share something of the way we used Logovisual Thinking to help senior management teams fire up their organisations with excellent results.

How to go about it?

Because vision will be a major factor in achieving desired outcomes, it is worth serious investment of time and resources. We recommend getting off-site into ideal surroundings – usually away from the city lights and with access to unspoiled nature. Ideally stay overnight, somewhere secluded where it is good to meet and a place whose values match your aspirations.

Make sure you invite all the “right” people – typically the whole executive team. You might expand this group to include additional stakeholders, so that all parts of your system are represented. If you have more than 4 you will need to work in smaller groups, then pool your outcomes to arrive at a single vision. In social groups this could involve as many as 100 people, so you need processes to integrate their outputs. A skilled facilitator will smooth your way.

Remember that an important aspect is that you are developing the people and their relationships by having them share the process, so there are many ingredients to include in the programme. Playful elements, exercises, games and relaxing walks, etc. will be more important than business-related briefings. You are not providing entertainment so much as challenging the status quo, linear thinking and mindsets, so the whole experience of being away together is important. Social aspects of breaking bread and sleeping under the same roof are valuable elements. Then there is the core vision process itself, which will need to be interwoven with the rest.

Create the atmosphere

Make sure the space is warm and welcoming. Arrange things to indicate that this is not a business meeting – a circle of chairs, for instance. Start with an introductory social-interactive session, then introduce the method and pitch right in. For LVT you can use index cards or sticky notes, or best of all, use Magnotes on whiteboards. Spell out the simple guidelines, without which you may compromise your outcomes.

  1. One idea to a note (no bullets or ampersands)
  2. Each a full and succinct statement (subject, active verb, object)
  3. Print so everyone can read easily
  4. No need to agree – difference is valuable!

Divide into sub-groups of 4 or 5 people each (this ensures everyone contributes and maximises the diversity of inputs). There are several distinct stages (the timings are provisional and may vary greatly)

Gather

(Say 20 minutes)

You need a trigger question, typically something like:

” Imagine – It is the year xxxx (choose a date 5 to 10 years in the future, so that thinking is less incremental) and that we have succeeded in our endeavour – What does success look like? What do we see that is evidence of that success?”

Give everyone cards and bold pens (to make it easier to read) and let them start writing their responses. This is usually a silent phase, as everyone is doing their own stuff. Avoid any tendency to discuss what to write, as this gets people trying to agree, which is a loss of diversity and a waste of time. Have people read out their ideas as they post them, so they can be clarified if necessary. The output is a random display.

Organise

(20 minutes)

This is more interactive, as people get hands-on with the material, initially pairing ideas which somehow “belong together”. Pairs of ideas attract other ideas to themselves, until everything is clustered into groups of no more than 6 or 7 items.  Nothing is rejected. If something is duplicated it does not matter. Note that this process is more subtle than simply categorising – space has meaning! Making sense, by arranging the material, is likely to involve much useful conversation.

Epitomise

(20 minutes)

Now we come to a very important step in meaning-making. We write epitomes for each cluster. An epitome summarises the meaning of all the content of the cluster in another short statement (subject, verb, object). It does not merely string together the elements but, in interpreting them, raises them to a different logical level. The epitome can then stand for all the content of the cluster. We have determined what the cluster means.

Structure

(10 minutes)

Get people to duplicate the epitomes onto new cards and structure them at this new level of abstraction, leaving behind the detail. The simplest kind of structure will be a systems diagram, arrived at by considering cause and effect or sequence, including any feedback loops you can identify. All of this can be mapped by arranging the epitomes and connecting them by lines and arrows, so that you can see the process unfolding over time.

Share

(5 minutes per group)

Now your groups need to cross-present, sharing their ideas, clarifying and appreciating their differences, which are likely to be of great value.

Integrate

(30 minutes)

Of course, you will need to arrive at a single shared vision, so you need to merge the different groups’ pictures. At this stage the groups again duplicate their epitomes and put them onto a common display where, again, they can be clustered. As before, nothing should be rejected. Second order epitomes can be written and an integrated map produced, again with lines and arrows to show the flow and the feedback.

With refinement this can be read, like a story. Photographs can allow the material to be recorded and distributed. Each sub-group could try writing a script that includes all of the material and then, through conversation, they can arrive at an agreed story-line. From this and from your integrated map you will be able to devise strategies and plans that will enable you to realise your vision. Then, the acid test: Is it believable? Will people commit to it? Is there the intent to make it real? Remember to design the follow-through and assign responsibilities. Make sure that ideas will get acted upon.

Advanced integration achieves a higher level of abstraction (deeper thinking) by using ring-composition – But that is, perhaps, a topic for a later posting?

John Varney is the founder and chief executive of the Centre for Management Creativity. He helps senior managers developing strategic dynamism and leading transformational change.

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