A New Lens on Vision

By Robert A. Goldberg

(Originally appeared in Leadership In Action, San Franciso: Jossey-Bass, Volume 18, No. 3, 1998)

For those of us in the organization development profession it is often an act of bravery to walk into a room of managers and suggest that they work on their vision for their organization, or even for their department. Usually confronted with grimaces, eye rolling, and accusations of being “touchy-feelie,” we steel ourselves to the task and facilitate our clients through, what for most people, is a difficult and questionable task.

Over the years I have wondered why an activity with the potential to establish an organization’s direction and energy is looked upon by so many with disdain, if not despair. What I have learned is that those who look upon visioning as a mostly hollow and academic exercise are absolutely right. It usually is a waste of time. Yet I have also learned that if vision is re-framed from some preferred future state to a recognition that our vision is what we create in, and for, the right here-and-now, that there might yet be hope for organizations to intentionally create the environment and, paradoxically, the future their members dream of. The purpose of this article is to provide leaders and facilitators of organization change a new and more effective way to approach the visioning process, an approach that, while it requires more bravery, also has a greater pay off.

Why Visioning Gets A Bad Rap

A super-bright CEO of a regional natural gas utility went to a leadership seminar with other CEO’s. At the workshop, they learned the importance of having a vision for their organizations, and they each worked on their individual visions.

When I met the CEO, he was excited about his vision work and had distributed his vision to his senior executive group in a meeting I was observing. When he asked for feedback from the eleven people at the table, he got some comments about how well written the few paragraphs were, and he received some word-smithing advice, as well. Taking this commentary as endorsement, he had posters of his vision hung throughout the office, and even made laminated wallet cards with the vision displayed against a picture of a beautiful mountain scene.

This organization was, like so many today, in the throes of enormous turbulence. Increased competition due to de-regulation in an industry that was consolidating into ever-larger corporations was creating pressure for the firm to reach beyond its traditional definition and to re-conceive itself. The CEO understood the challenges and articulated them well and often. Yet despite how “correct” the CEO’s “vision statement” was, it fell flat on the ears of the organization, and was derided (behind his back, of course) as another top-down enthusiasm soon to be forgotten. Worse still, the top of the mountain in the picture of the wallet cards was actually obscured by clouds, a tough metaphor for the whole executive group to live down.

So, despite the good intentions of a well-informed chief executive, another nail was hammered in the visioning coffin. Describing this true story to different groups, I ask them why visioning gets a “bad rap,” their responses are so consistent that I sometimes feel that most everybody in organizations has a bad visioning story. The usual suspects?

  • The vision came from one person or a few from the top of the organization who went off to a retreat, and like a group of corporate ‘Moses,’ returned with the “tablets of truth.”
  • The “tablets of truth” are written in management jargon so arcane and dead of feeling that few even know what the words mean, let alone become interested in pursuing.
  • There is confusion about whether the work is the organization’s mission or its vision, which leads to endless squabbling that results in indifference.
  • The words are so generic that any organization can aspire to the same vision.
  • The vision is plastered all over the place, in some cases etched literally (and symbolically) in stone.
  • Peoples’ experience of the organization is in such striking contrast to the values represented by its vision statement that a backlash takes place and cynicism washes through the organization.

To put these issues into perspective, the overarching problem with the traditional approach to visioning is that the focus is on the creation of a product called a “vision statement” and that people are expected to rally around it. Yeah, right.

So What’s the Use?

So why even bother expending energy on visioning? When asked, the same groups who so easily see the problems of how visioning is often conducted are also able to articulate the worthiness of visioning work They report that:

  • Vision can motivate and energize people.
  • Vision helps the future appear closer to the present.
  • Vision can provide direction and commitment to action.
  • Vision makes the future seem positive.

Even though these comments reflect a hopeful attitude toward the potential of vision work, they are still bound up in the traditional frame of visioning as a future orienting activity. Thus, while there is some yearning for imaging a positive future state, many are frustrated by traditional approaches and seek a better process. While this is essential, the only way for visioning to be an effective tool for an organization’s development is to stop focusing on vision as some positive, yet-unfulfilled future state, and to exclusively focus on the process by which vision is created and manifested in the present.

Further, it is inevitable that the process by which visioning is engaged in will, for better or for worse, accurately represent the outcome of the visioning process. A process that is leader-directed, with involvement of some ‘select few’ will result in a leader-directed, hierarchical and dependency oriented organization. A process that engages and involves wide swaths of an organization will lead to more empowered, committed action. Why?

At its heart, visioning is a decision-making process. Effective visioning entails understanding that the decisions establishing the visioning process are actually the organization’s vision in action. Decisions around the visioning process are mirrors for how other decisions are made in the organization. Thus, the visioning process is both metaphor and teacher. Metaphor, because the decisions that create the visioning process are expressions of the values operating in that organization; and teacher, because by witnessing an organization’s visioning process you can learn what values need to shift for the organization to most effectively change. The process is the outcome; we reap what we sow.

The president of a high-tech pharmaceutical service company wanted an organization that would work in cross-disciplinary teams, be focused on customer needs, and reward innovations to their core technologies. Yet his interactions with his executive group were in direct contradiction to his stated intentions. He set the chemistry and biology vice presidents in competition with each other for resources and for his recognition. He excluded the vice president of marketing from key client meetings, insulating her and the organization from customer feedback. And, no management practices were put in place to reward or recognize individuals or teams for process or service innovations. This president was getting an organization he designed (and presumably, deserved) through his own values, despite his exhortations to the department heads to “get their acts together.”

So while his vision of the future organization was optimistic, laden with what he considered positive values, he continued operating with the same autocratic, divide and conquer principles and values that had helped him to succeed in his own career. Unfortunately, these principles played out not only within his executive team. His vice presidents treated their own departments the way they, themselves, were treated by the president. One can imagine the life-draining energy one felt immediately upon walking in the front door of their executive offices. They were living their vision in the present.

The point here is that regardless of a formal visioning process, organizations already have visions they are living out on a daily basis. These visions are expressions of their values lived out in the present. Often they are haphazard or unintentionally expressed by modeling the leader’ behavior (as in the cases of the utility and the pharmaceutical company). Sometimes, however, they are created intentionally as a ‘field of shared values’ that actually guide actions and provide boundaries for the behavior of its members. Yet in order to operationalize this concept, we need to distinguish between mission and vision, and to bring into the mix the notion of organizational values.

Mission, Vision, Values — What’s The Difference, And Who Cares?

Without splitting hairs, there is a difference between mission and vision that if considered, could yield more clarity in vision work. A mission can be thought of as the “what” of an organization — its strategic (yet lofty) objective, its tactical goals, and its subsequent action plans put in play to achieve its objective. With this definition in mind, John Kennedy’s “We will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade” is actually a mission statement. Quantifiable as a strategic objective, and certainly elevating, it stimulated an enormous range of activities and expenditures. Yet even though it describes a mission, people often read it as a vision statement, most likely because it evokes an emotional pull toward something previously considered impossible to achieve. GE’s credo of only owning a business in an industry in which it could be number one or number two is often thought of as a vision statement, but in reality is more of a mission statement. Quite specific, briefly outlining a strategic objective, it leads to actionable acquisition and divestiture tactics. You can usually tell a mission statement if it helps describe the organization’s future business or operational achievement goal. The best of their kind are brief, specific and measurable, and yield commitment to achieve the outcome desired. Without a mission, an organization has no reason for being, and it will flounder.

On the other hand, it is helpful to consider vision as the “how” of an organization. The purpose of vision work (note I do not say vision “statement”) is to help people identify and reinforce the values and behaviors considered important for success, how people should treat each other and customers, and to identify management practices that will support those values.

Visioning establishes boundaries, or norms, of behavior beyond which people generally will not wander. An example of a vision ‘statement’ (which I hesitate to use since I don’t believe much in their usefulness) is “we will delight our customers and ourselves.” Another example is “we will learn shoulder to shoulder with our clients.” These statements depict values (‘delighting’ and ‘learning’) that are important to their organizations even as they influence each organization’s mission. For instance, delighting customers may lead to a strategy of frequent new product introductions, while learning with clients may lead to a marketing strategy that helps distinguish inappropriate from appropriate clients. One could also predict that in these organizations people would care about delighting and learning from each other.

Working with organizational values can be a tricky business since they seem so conceptual, so abstract and invisible. No one ever sees a value, except in how it plays out in someone’s actions. A simple way to define values are those deep-seated beliefs, so important to us that they actually influence our actions and even help us to predict our behavior. An example is that I value music a great deal and always turn on my stereo when I get home and even play the radio in my office. Another example is that I value improving at my profession so I often ask people for constructive feedback. These are behaviors people have come to expect of me; they are behavioral expressions of my values.

But to complicate matters, most of us possess values in conflict with each other. For instance, I value my family and want to spend as much time with my daughter as possible, especially while she is still young. Yet I also value my professional identity and my clients. What I do when an important client meeting is scheduled at the same time as my daughter’s dance recital is a behavioral statement of which I truly value more. If I attend the client meeting, I may flatter myself by saying that I value spending time with my daughter, but I am not acting according to that value. I may talk a good ‘family values’ game, but I would be walking another set of values, namely, the importance of clients in my life. The times to best identify what one’s own values really are (rather than one’s espoused values), or an organization’s, are when they are in conflict with each other, and a mutually exclusive course of action must be taken.

At an organizational level, a good example is of a family owned consumer products company that prides itself on ‘loyalty’ as a core value. This organization makes it quite difficult for managers to fire employees, unless the organization feels betrayed by an employee (incompetence is usually not considered betrayal). Yet when an unfortunate downturn in business occurred, the value of ‘loyalty’ appeared to be in conflict with the firm’s need to cut labor costs. As could be predicted, this organization found ways to keep people on the payroll (i.e., job sharing, salary cuts, etc.), laid people off based on seniority, and provided generous severance and out-placement services. Whether these were good or bad practices is not the issue. The point is that by knowing the deeply held value of the organization, its actions during times of this financial and management challenge were predictable. It would be difficult to imagine a firm whose core value is ‘wealth creation for shareholders’ to have taken a similar path in these circumstances.

Thus, the values of a firm play out through its management practices and through the behavior of its members. By knowing the core values (rather than those described in ‘vision statements’) one can see the firm’s vision of itself in action. This is the “how” of vision — how things get done when tough choices need to be made. So we need to stop looking at the future for the vision of what we should become; rather, we should look at the present to see what values are being expressed today through our actions. If the values expressed today through our behavior are not consistent with our aspirations, its time to stop dreaming about that future state and start behaving differently now.

The process by which an organization goes through its vision creation, like any of its actions, is also an expression of its core values. And this process can be the point of greatest leverage for creating a new vision for a firm, or for an individual.

The CEO of the natural gas utility company was behaving congruently with his values when he published his vision statement. He valued being known as a ‘strong’ and decisive leader, and for being seen as knowledgeable and sophisticated. His vision statement expressed these values to the organization. So it was surprising to him when he learned that what he complained about most in the organization — how people sat around and waited to be told what to do, how risk and change averse the managers were, how lethargic people seemed despite the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead — was largely a result of the values he was expressing in his leadership of the organization. His core values were ‘top-down decision making’ and ‘looking good to others.’

For the president of the pharmaceutical company, his ‘command and control’ value was expressed in his behavior toward his direct reports: he criticized them in public, he let them influence him behind each other’s backs in closed door meetings, and he kept the organization structured in functional silos that prevented the kinds of breakthroughs he claimed to desire. He too was surprised to hear that he was enacting his vision of the organization through his behavior in the present, and his ambitions for change were mostly perceived as ‘hot air.’

In both cases, the successful transformation of the organizations depended on the personal transformations of their leaders. Unless they enlarged or shifted their own core values, their behavior patterns would remain the same, and they would be unable to help their firms’ enact any vision different from the ones they found themselves living out. Yet while it is easy to discuss personal transformation and the shifting of the vision of an organization, this is an extremely difficult process and requires a different kind of courage than leaders are accustomed to accessing. One does not embark on this journey casually. I have found that the only time leaders are willing to do this work, which entails pain and vulnerability, is when they realize that if they continue on their personal path and expect others to change, that they are deluding themselves.

The good news is that the very process by which leaders have the opportunity and the challenge to engage in personal transformation is the very same process by which organization visions can be recreated. All people have to do is give themselves permission to learn from each other. Yeah, right.

The Values of The Visioning Process

It is by now considered a ‘given’ that most organizations need to get the most out of their people. Some consider employee commitment to perform on behalf of the goals of the organization to be their only potential competitive advantage. And by now most leaders acknowledge (at least they give lip service to the notion) that involving employees in decisions that affect them will yield higher levels of commitment and performance. Most employees are not as interested in getting their way as much as being part of a process they consider fair, can understand and be part of.

The values of a visioning process that involves different levels of employees (laterally and vertically) in its creation is fundamentally different from the values expressed in traditional top-down approaches. These values include:

  • Honoring the input and perspectives of people lower in the hierarchy
  • Openness to being influenced by ideas not of one’s own making
  • Sharing information so people can make well informed contributions
  • Encouraging conversations about the future among people who often don’t talk to each other or don’t see ‘eye to eye.’
  • Trusting that others may have as much to contribute as the leader(s)

This is not simply getting ‘input’ and ‘buy-in’ for one’s own conceptions. If this were all it took, the traditional approaches would be sufficient. Rather, embarking on a path with these values actually requires leaders or leadership teams to actually possess these values, which run counter to the values many leaders express in their behavior.

This is not a matter of blaming leaders for something they’ve done ‘wrong;’ most of us have grown up in systems and institutions in which we are told what to do (i.e., schools, parents, early employment, etc.). It is natural that when we attain power we end up telling people what to do. It is a role expectation. Thus, it is not only leaders who may need to examine their fundamental values. Others collude in this process. Yet if an organization needs to fundamentally shift its vision of itself (its culture), it is not possible to do so with the same authority-dependency relationships in place. Given the reality of power relations, it’s unreasonable to expect those not in power to begin the process. Visioning needs to start with the leader.

A division of a global industrial machinery organization was reorganized from regional reporting lines (i.e., North America, Asia, etc.) into a global product lines organization. Its top leadership group was struggling to make sense of the new organization. Whereas before a regional director controlled manufacturing, marketing and human resources in his or her region, now global product line managers were emerging as a more powerful coalition.

A year into the new organization the president of the division assembled the top leadership group, including regional directors and product line managers, to examine the effects of the reorganization and to create what he called a “global strategy team.”

He had two guiding principles for the group: First, that the combined group would be responsible for establishing worldwide strategy — no sub-group would dominate or succeed without the others. Second, he announced that while he preserved the prerogative to make final decisions on global strategy and investments, that he would not impose a process by which this strategy was established. To create the strategy process, he would consider himself equal to the rest of the group.

This second principle was crucial. It was a value statement that this group of executives had to find a way to become accountable to each other as a cross-functional global team, with an output (global strategy process and plan) and interdependent roles.

His statement signaled his commitment to a more widely involving process of leadership than these executives had before experienced.

Their first task was to identify the domain of the global strategy team, which entailed a detailed understanding of the responsibilities of the regional directors and the product line managers (i.e., what was ‘locally’ within the scope of the regional directors, and what were super-ordinate global product line issues).

The establishment of role boundaries enabled the regional directors to see that while they may be losing some clout, that their roles were still crucial and valued. This freed up their energy to participate in the second task, which was to decide on a process to create the global strategic plan.

The path this group chose was to select a ‘point person’ for a particular issue, and work in cross-functional sub-teams that would be accountable to the larger group for their research and recommendations. They plotted their commitments on a time line that covered an entire wall of their meeting room, and scheduled a future meeting to review recommendations and finalize their work.

Over time, several successes resulted. Bottom line savings through global plant utilization, inventory levels and collateral promotions were gained, and top line revenue generation was accelerated through new product introductions. This group successfully found the balance between addressing local and global concerns in the same way it found the balance between being led and leading.

For them to have enacted this new way of doing things, a new set of values needed to be committed to. These values included thinking globally rather than parochially (which could entail a regional director ‘taking a hit’ to his or her own short-term results in order to pursue a larger global payoff), working across organization boundaries, and feeling accountable not only to a boss but to a ‘global strategy team.’ For this traditional, 120-year-old organization with an average management tenure of about 20 years, this value shift was unprecedented, and eventually led other divisions to follow a similar, but not identical path toward globalization.

The leader of this organization knew that in order for the new global organization structure to pay off with new behaviors, that a new value set needed to take hold, and that it was up to him as a person to deeply understand and enact a new set of values in order to set the wheels in motion.

Yet at no time did this group of 19 executives create a vision statement for itself. Rather, it created a new vision for itself by acting differently with each other in the present. The division president realized that the values he had grown up with as he rose through the ranks were no longer going to sustain the organization. His courage was in the depth of his recognition; his bravery was in doing something about it.

One might predict that with time, management practices to reinforce the new value set would be established (i.e., a compensation system that emphasizes global contributions while still acknowledging local performance, an MIS system that permits everyone to see results on a global basis, etc.). At a deeper level, one might predict that the new value set of involvement will infiltrate deeper into this 60,000 employee organization, since the leaders of the firm chose a new path of values and behavior for themselves.

The Role of Leadership

While there are several tools available that leaders can utilize for the creation of visions based on new values (i.e., Future Search Conferences, Open Space, and other large system change methodologies) these tools have one important common element: they each require organization members to talk and listen to each other differently than they had before. Implicit in these methodologies are values of honoring others’ voices, shared accountability and commitment to the success of the enterprise, and driving out the fear that is often an unfortunate by-product of hierarchy. Regardless of methodology, it is in the enactment of these values that the seeds of organization transformation germinate. Thus, methodology is subordinate to values change. Short of this, organizations will not be able to sustain their change efforts.

Yet some organizations that pursue visioning endeavors are disappointed. While there may be many causes, it is likely that the values shifts these methodologies represent were not sustained; it is easier for people to drift back to earlier coping strategies (especially in the present of conflict, when true values manifest).

Organizational leaders play a crucial role in the visioning process, a role that often seems opaque. It is easier to write a vision statement in a room with one’s own direct reports, or learning about the “twelve steps” of leading change, than it is to take a hard look in the mirror at the ramifications of one’s own behavior.

Unfortunately, the self-fulfilling nature of this work leads to a leadership “Catch-22” that makes this a particularly intractable dilemma. Leaders (like all of us) come to their positions with certain assumptions about how the world works, and how their organization should function (their values). As we have seen, they express these values in their behavior. People respond to the leader’s behavior, and the leader comes to believe that his or her behavior is getting the desired result. Thus, the leader’s value set is reinforced, making it even more difficult to change. In this scenario, even deviations from success won’t be perceived as having anything to do with the leader’s values. Rather, it will be concluded that deviations from success are a result of people not getting it, not working hard enough, or not sharing the leader’s core values. Yet a deep level of change often requires a different set of values. And that newer set of values can’t take root because the leader doesn’t possess them.

That is why leaders often are the last to hear the bad news (do you want to tell your boss that the values expressed by his or her behavior are not in line with what is necessary for success?), and why they often don’t get the information they need to make better informed decisions (“You tell him. No, you!”). They are permitted to go on thinking their values are not the problem. Yeah, right.

Unfortunately, the only exit from this cul-de-sac is at the values level, and like as in therapeutic counseling, people that need it the most are those that seek it the least. Leaders who are willing to authentically question themselves are more likely to already possess the values needed for change.

There is no easy way out of this dilemma. For some of us, values shaped at an early age become ‘fossilized’ over time. We often think that with each new generation of leaders that different models and values of leadership will emerge, and then we are disappointed with those who look and act much like the people who placed them in power. There is hope, however, and it lies in a clear-eyed (and often gut-wrenching) examination of how one’s core values play out in one’s behavior.

A high energy, paternalistic president of a consumer products firm never had the time to get to the work he claimed he wanted to accomplish: namely, analyzing and revising the company’s global product portfolio. Most of his time was spent fielding phone calls from regional directors, visiting the field sales offices, and resolving the interpersonal conflicts his competitive direct reports brought to his attention.

He knew he was spinning his wheels (and, burning out) and complained about his people not empowering themselves to make decisions on their own. Everything seemed to come to his doorstep.

When the weak (no coincidence here, eh?) vice president of sales retired, the president seized the opportunity to create an operating team of his direct reports that he believed would be the vehicle for them to rely on each other as resources, rather than on himself, and that this would free up his time to pursue his portfolio ambitions.

In their first meeting, after he outlined his objective, during a discussion of how they were going to organize this new leadership group, the president asked what might prevent the team from being effective.

Each person spoke their fear that the president himself would unwittingly sink the effort by sending mixed messages about their decision authority, reaching down into the organization and by-passing them with their own staff, and generally not trusting them to make it work. Livid, he defended himself by accusing them of not taking the leadership mantle, of bringing any cockamamie situation to him without even a suggestion for resolution. A heated conversation ensued. In the end, through a dialogic conversation in which ‘inquiry’ into other peoples’ thinking was the expressed value, a new and deeper level of understanding was reached between the president and his staff.

The president had thought the work would be a simple delegative task; over time he realized that only by challenging his own core set of beliefs, and through his commitment to change his own behavior based on a new set of values, would progress on the team be made.

The group looks back on this meeting as a watershed in the company’s culture change based more on empowered risk-taking than on paternalism.

As life imitates art, the meeting in which the leader was challenged was, in and of itself, a perfect example of this values shift. A witness could only marvel at the shift in values represented in the moment, through peoples’ actions in the meeting. Thus, this group’s visioning was not about a vision statement (they never had time to create it, thank goodness) but about the more difficult work of values examination.

Visioning is a decision making process. The thesis of this article is that we make these decisions every day. These decisions are expressions of our values. Yet in organizations, decision making is the currency of power: those in power get to make the decisions, not only about budgets and other resources, but about visions, too. The crux issue becomes “what do leaders make decisions about?” If a leader has a vision of his or her organization (or department) that is different from how it currently functions, and leads a visioning process that is consistent with how decisions have come to be made, the result will be the same organization as before. If different values manifest in the visioning process, there is a chance for fundamental change to take root. It’s actually a conceptually simple proposition.

Unfortunately until a leader is willing to examine his or her own value-set as it plays out in behavior (especially around the question of power — “who gets to decide what?”) embarking on a visioning exercise to transform an organization is at best pre-mature. Organizational transformation hinges on individual transformation. One should not minimize its difficulty as one should not minimize its power.