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Tom Devane is a consultant, author, and co-author of provocative bestselling books on achieving extraordinary results using methods that systematically engage people in organizations and communities.
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    Entries in Vision (4)


    Four Tips for Building Powerful Visions that Get Acted Upon

    An organization’s vision can be a tremendously powerful lever for performance.  That is, when it’s crafted well.
    What gives vision statements a bad name is when a small, select group of executives go off-site to a fun resort and come up with a one- to four-sentence summary of what they talked about and ultimately agreed upon.  And then they laminate it on wallet-sized cards and put up posters of it in each conference room, fully expecting employees to resonate with it, and fall in line completely behind it.  
    I’ve seen this process fail time after time.  And it’s raised a level of cynicism and inaction in organizations on every continent, in every imaginable industry.
    So exactly what does it take to build a vision that’s a powerful engine for organizational performance?  Let’s start by taking a look at what I mean by vision.  An organizational vision describes an unprecedented, highly optimistic desired future state or remarkable achievement.  A vision should help energize people, inspire them to help achieve it, and focus their efforts.  
    An example was when Colin Marshall, then president of British Airways (while many passengers and travel agents alleged that BA stood for “bloody awful”) declared that the company would become the world’s premier airline.  And the airline employees made extraordinary improvements.
    Here are four tips to help you boost the impact of your organization’s vision.
    1.  Consciously consider the context you’re operating in, in a group setting.  Sure, you want to set those stretch targets, and be uninhibited by current obstacles in your path.  And you SHOULD want to set those stretch targets.  But don’t make the mistake of failing to formally take a look at the context around you, or you might miss some great opportunities.  Ask questions like, “Is there an industry ecosystem that we’re part of that’s evolving, whose characteristics we need to consider in OUR evolution?”  “What are our organization’s awesome strengths that we need to capitalize on going forward?”  “Are there elements of our current obstacles that we could turn to our advantage?”  “How do we want to shape – not just react to – the industry we’re a part of and the greater world around us?”
    And I’ve also found it helpful to consider these questions, and have associated conversations, in a group setting with leaders from various disciplines in the organization.  It’s like everyone has a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and being in one room helps get the puzzle assembled quickly.  The back and forth that goes on in such conversations helps strengthen everyone’s understanding of the situation, and helps build a common, shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities ahead.  Without the collective, public conversations that people can build on, all we have are individual thoughts inside people's heads.  Because these internal thoughts are not connected with other thoughts, and top leaders aren't sure if there's agreement on the critical issues, the organization loses a great deal of leverage in building an effective vision.
    2.  Engage people’s creative side, not just their analytical side.  The vision development work should not just be performed in a sterile, analytical, serious environment.  Use pictures and images in creative ways to prompt, and deepen conversations.  Use stories and metaphors as conversational stepping stones to get from the current state to a better future one.  
    Keep in mind that there’s a lot of science behind the notion that people having fun can more easily step outside their day-to-day concerns and be innovative.  So by all means, create an environment for lightheartedness, experimentation, non-judgment, and fun.  In his book Serious Play, innovation thought leader Michael Schrage contends that, “You can’t be a serious innovator unless you are willing and able to play.”  
    3.  Quickly link the vision to a strategy, goals, and execution plan.  Don’t just let the vision sit there.  The vision only tells what remarkable impact you want to have on the world.  To keep that vision from being merely an hallucination, you’ll need to say how you plan to make it happen, and set up measurable goals and action plans to drive activity at all levels of the organization.  
    While all this linking doesn’t need to all be done in one session, top leaders should at least agree on a timetable – in the near future – where there will be a follow-up strategy, goals, and execution plans developed.
    4.  Design and plan for the vision’s communication and roll-out.  A great vision that resides only on conference room wall posters and laminated wallet cards never did any company any good.  It has to be in people’s heads and hearts also.  
    To do this, there needs to be a plan to disseminate the content of the vision, as well as some of the assumptions and background conversations that helped shaped the vision.  These will be necessary for people to understand the vision, talk about it with others in the organization, and get energized about trying to achieve it.
    The good news is that many of the stories, metaphors, and images that were used to help develop the vision (step 2 above) may be quite useful in communicating it to the workforce.
    The above provide some practical tips for building a truly powerful vision that an organization can get energized for, and then achieve.



    How to Magnify the Impact of Your Visioning and Strategy Development Sessions with One Little Pre-step

    Before you get together with the top leaders in the corporation to craft a vision and subsequent strategy, let’s think for a moment about how you could magnify the impact of those sessions.  One powerful thing to do to is to call top leaders, and those with additional valuable perspectives, into a session where they explore assumptions and see if those assumptions are still valid as the organization moves into the future.  
    These assumptions could be explicit or tacit.  They could be about topics like the overall market, target niches, the competition, regulation, or internal capabilities.  Anything that could have a significant impact on the organization’s future could be fair game.
    A reasonable person might ask, “But how do you get a diverse group of people in a room and talk about high-leverage assumptions without heated disagreements breaking out, and the overall conversation deteriorating?”  The answer is that we set up the session so this doesn’t happen.  
    We use a method for groups getting together called “Dialogue” where we state up front that we’re not looking for decisions or mass agreement in key issues.  We’re simply looking to collect people’s thoughts and their potential implications, in a non-threatening environment, where even the most shy and timid people can express their view of the situation.  And by stating up front that we’re not looking for decisions or unanimous agreements, we take the pressure off people so they can express their true opinions and thoughts on an issue that impacts the organization.  We state that we’re just collecting pieces of data that can be use later in analyses, debates, and decisions for moving forward.
    By having such a pre-visioning/pre-strategy Dialogue session, we can often gather information that may not have been previously available, because a soft-spoken person wouldn’t speak up.  And we also find that in a group setting people collectively build on each other’s thoughts, and often come up with a new, better thought based on back and forth conversations and the subtle nuances of the individual thoughts presented.  In many organizations these have proven to be extremely valuable inputs for visioning and strategic planning sessions.
    Here are some other norms we state up front going into a Dialogue session.  We ask people to:
    • Suspend their judgments and their “certainties”
    • Respectfully explore others’ assumptions through questions
    • Disclose their key assumptions and how they arrived at them
    • Respect foreign-sounding points of view
    • Ask questions they don’t have answers for, and be prepared to be surprised and learn something they hadn’t known before.
    Dialogue is a versatile group method that can be used in many situations in addition to visioning and strategy development like we’ve covered here.  A short Dialogue blog provides some additional information on the method.

    Don’t Forget the Power of “Not” in Visioning and Strategy Sessions


    As part of my consulting work I’m asked to review a lot of vision statements, strategic intent statements, and strategic plans.  Something struck me in my latest review this week, and I’ve found it to be so prevalent that I think sharing this could be very helpful to top leaders and strategic planners as they develop these key corporate direction documents.  So here it is.
    And that’s the power of Not.
    It’s only natural, from an economic standpoint, that companies would like to sell to as many people as possible.  So we see target niches that include consumers that at all income levels.  And geographic niches that include all regions on the planet.
    But targeting to sell to everyone, everywhere has two basic problems.  First is that people, in this day and age, like to think they’re being marketed to for their specific needs.  And second, no one company has the resources to chase all the opportunities on the planet.  There needs to be an allocation of scarce resources, but I often don’t see this in a company’s strategy.  Unfortunately, I typically do see this allocation occurring informally, on an ad hoc basis, at the division or department level at budgeting time, which is definitely too low a place in the organization for this to be happening.
    It’s extremely helpful to say Not in strategic documents, and many times also in a company’s vision statement.  A statement like “We’re in the telecommunications space, but we’re NOT going to play in the cable market” helps send a clear message to directors and managers where they should spend their time and efforts. 
    In addition to allocating scarce resources, this practice of saying Not also helps focus on key strengths.  I know of one pulp and paper mill company that once diversified by purchasing a cruise line to run as a separate division.  They ended up exiting quickly, as they really didn’t know how to run that business profitably.  And it showed.
    So don’t forget the power of Not in your vision and strategy – it can save you a lot of time, money, and workforce confusion about strategic choices.



    Why involve a lot of people in developing a vision and strategy?

    A few years back Walter Kiechel of Fortune magazine conducted a poll of consultants. They reported that less than 10% of strategies associated with traditional strategic planning methods are successfully implemented.  When Tom Peters, an ex-McKinsey consultant, heard this number he called it “wildly inflated.” 

    But perhaps the polled consultants and Tom Peters’ samples were biased (because boy, they sure seem low!).  So let’s turn our attention to Henry Mintzberg, a renowned researcher, consultant, and academic in the field of strategic planning.  He’s done extensive research on numerous industries and for different-sized organizations.  Mintzberg’s estimate: only 10-30% of intended strategy is realized.  None of our estimates so far are very cheery, even Mintzberg’s 30% at the upper end of his range. 

    So, as we set out to take a look at improving the stategy-to-execution cycle, one ripe area to explore is that way that we develop strategy.  And how it’s linked upstream to vision, and downstream to executable day-to-day actions.

    A break with historical practices?

    Historically, most organizational visions and strategies have been developed by a handful of people.   Or, in some cases, primarily by one person.  

    These small groups of people are typically the people who head up the key functions at an organization, so it makes sense that they’re involved in the planning since they have the power to command resources to make the strategy happen.  But are those the only people whose involvement would benefit the organization?  Especially with today’s rapid pace of technological and social change, and the multiple generations now in the workforce?

    Many innovative organizations today are starting to say no.  They believe they can gain a competitive edge by inviting more people than usual to participate in defining, and setting a course for the future.  A vision that is compelling – and bought into because many people helped create it – will be more helpful in guiding an organization than a sterile multi-sentence elaboration of top management’s thoughts on a laminated card.  A strategy that a diverse set of people have co-developed will be less likely to be jettisoned in mid-course, simply because the large group already thought of potential problems and addressed them, which is hard for one person or a small group to do.  The laminated vision developed by a few is less likely be to understood and embraced in the formal strategy develop process.

    So now let’s talk about the strategy-to-execution connection.  A large-group of people, comprised with executives and a sprinkling of non-executives, are more likely craft a strategy with pragmatic links to daily actions that would implement the strategy than a small group of just senior people.  The larger, more diverse group, would likely develop language that’s better understood by all, and would also tend to be more implementable in day-to-day operations. 

    Just why does it seem be make sense to make a break with historical visioning and strategy processes?  Because the conversations among diverse perspectives tend to generate robust plans that hold up better in the marketplace, and also create energy for implementation among the participants.


    A confluence of three credible idea wellsprings

    Three sources, all operating independently, support the notion that planning for the future with large groups of people can yield better results than with small groups:

    James Surowiecki’s landmark book The Wisdom of Crowds talks about how large groups of people tend to do better at predictions than individuals or small groups of people.  A business columnist for the New Yorker, Surowiecki argues that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them."  He supports this claim in a variety of settings in his 336-page book.

    From the social media front, the book Groundswell by two of Forrester Research’s leading analysts Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, presents an interesting business case. Large numbers of Best Buy employees, connected through the company’s internal social media, consistently produced product forecasts that were much better than retail experts.  And engaging employees in this way has proved to be highly effective at other high-tech and retail firms.

    And from the world of organization development, “group methods” have emerged over the past 15 years that provide convenient templates for success that leaders can use for a variety of purposes, one of which is contributing to the strategic planning process. A “group method” is an agenda with accompanying facilitation principles and target outcomes that makes is possible for groups of people to develop extraordinary outcomes very quickly.  You’ll see more on group methods at the end of this blog.

    What does involving more people get you?

    Here are the major benefits of involving large groups of people -- typically from 25 to 80 -- simultaneously to develop a direction for the future, such as a strategy or a vision.  You get

    • A higher quality product.  You have a robust solution, that’s more creative and bullet-proof, because you’re drawing upon the collective wisdom of different perspectives.
    • A compressed timeframe for a plan.  People in a room together with real-time, back-and-forth exchanges of information, yield a high quality product faster than conducting a series of smaller review meetings, or sequential comments attached to an e-mailed draft plan that is circulated among the executives.
    • High quality, specific links from strategy to action.  Engaging top, middle, and sometimes front-line levels of an organization in developing a plan help ensure its understandability and connections to day-to-day actions. People are energized to implement the plan.  People tend to own what they help create, and this ownership creates energy for implementation.


    Moving forward

    For many, this concept of engaging many people in charting a course for the future is quite new.  Some will embrace it immediately because it seems to make sense at a “gut level.”  Others may have some doubts.  If your doubts currently are overpowering your inclinations to do something like this, you might want to check out the blog, “Four major ‘but what ifs’ for group-based strategic planning.”

    Other leaders may think the concept looks promising, but that it seems like too high a risk to do right now, especially if the company hasn’t done one before.  If you’re in this camp, you may want to take a look at  the blog post “Group Methods for Strategic Planning and Visioning, ” which provides some examples of how innovation-based companies like Microsoft, Whole Foods Market, and Hunter-Douglas are engaging groups of people using group methods (standard templates that can save your time and improve output quality) to chart a course for the future.