Vision Casting: The Case for Structure and Process
One of the most common reasons that CEOs, executive teams, and boards struggle to develop a powerful vision is that their vision casting process has little or no structure, or is otherwise highly ineffective. Before we examine some of the reasons for this, let’s first look at the value of vision and the benefits that process and structure offers to the vision casting effort.
The Value of Vision
It’s probably intuitively obvious to most people that vision is important and that it creates a big impact on individuals and organizations, but I have found that vision is rarely utilized as a core lever for achieving results. In the same way, there are many benefits, large and small, of having a clear vision for your organization, but for now I will stick to just a few of the primary value drivers.
The vision casting process aligns people with a shared understanding of what success looks like.
A good corporate vision should be a clearly articulated story or picture of the future once success has been achieved, and this should put all stakeholders in an organization, from investors to board to management to line employees, on the same page, with a common language for defining long-term success. Because everyone has the same concrete picture of this future, they can get down to business working together on the strategy and tactical execution of making that future a reality. When teams are aligned and working together as one, powerful things can happen.
A clear vision makes business objectives come alive.
Setting team goals, KPIs, or long-term business objectives are all essential to making a business run effectively. However, these goals can often become monotonous measuring sticks that simply report performance from season to season. But these same goals come alive when they are part of larger vision pointing us into the future. Ultimately, the vision gives purpose and meaning to objectives, making them more effective and useful, and in doing so, invites us to push further and farther than we previously thought possible.
Vision excites and inspires.
Entrepreneurs must utilize an essential skill when pitching their business idea: They need to clearly articulate what will be, but is not yet reality, with passion, belief, and the perfect blend of crazy and common sense. This ability to cast vision ultimately enables others to invest, work for, partner with, or even try out a new product because it is exciting and ultimately inspires us to do something. Vision works the same way in any organization—it gets people to buy-in, to join the movement, or to give up something valuable, such as their time, money, connections, etc., because they BELIEVE. They believe because the vision allows them to see the future and think there’s a chance—even a small chance—that it will become a reality, and people want to play a part in shaping the future.
The Benefits of Using Process and Structure for Vision Casting
People usually don’t say, “I just love process… give me more.” Instead, meetings, progress reports, research, and milestones usually invite rashes and hives when mentioned. But as with most worthwhile things in life, a well-managed process is the key ingredient to getting the good results. Here are a few reasons why process not only helps with vision casting, but also offers additional benefits.
The vision casting process gives an opportunity for the team to contribute.
Yes, it would be easier and simpler for the vision to simply appear—In fact, that is often the burden we place on our executive leaders. “If they could just be the visionary, and tell us where we are going, then we can all follow and life would be better.” In reality, of course, we know that most of our leaders aren’t true visionaries, and even when people are presented with a compelling vision, they are resistant to change, happy with the status-quo, and upset that they weren’t included in the decision. Right? The truth is that by having a process to collaboratively develop vision together, people are more willing to buy-in because they had a role to play. Each individual’s contribution makes them more likely to support and ultimately work towards that shared future.
The vision casting process gives the wider organization time to embrace the vision.
Much like the point above, vision needs time to germinate and grow on people. When we have time to digest and understand new ideas and potentially scary changes, we’re much more likely to give it a go. Especially for large organizations, when a corporate direction is shared, it is imperative that leadership gives ample time for the company to understand it, process it, give feedback, and celebrate it. When this happens, the vision has a far better chance of being embraced company-wide.
The vision casting process delivers a better finished product.
Vision is no different than any other critical business effort—when you take the time to develop, evolve, and sharpen the effort through a structured approach, the results will pay dividends. A broader involvement from your team will provide the diverse perspectives and contrarian views that are essential for creative thinking and next level results. In addition, allowing time for refinement and giving room for different phases will allow the end-product to evolve to its full potential. We all know, process can be harnessed for good or can (as we’ll later see) simply get in the way. But when used effectively, it will have a measurable impact on the effectiveness of your corporate vision casting efforts.
Where the Vision Casting Process Goes South
So while we know process can make a difference in developing a more effective vision, it’s clear that process and structure can also have a downside. There are many more ways that process can derail vision, but here are a few of the biggest issues.
Vision only comes from the top.
We’ve all seen it happen: A CEO or founder gets enamored with the latest trend, or sees an exciting opportunity, and like a moth to a flame, can’t resist pulling the organization into a new vision. These abrupt about-faces create corporate whiplash, and can have dangerous consequences even if the vision itself might be right. These consequences include losing essential leaders that cross the new path, strategic confusion that results in wasted time, money, and effort, and orphaned projects as they no longer fit within the vision. If a leader does indeed have a top-down driven approach to vision, it should be shared and implemented with tremendous care, listening, and input, knowing the strain the organization will come under during the transition.
Vision by committee.
We are all familiar with the term “death by committee.” The vision casting process is not exempted from this reality and it must be guarded against at all costs. Committees can be powerful champions of change, brainstorm new ideas, help to usher process forward, and provide critical feedback, but if decisions are made by group consensus, then its unlikely a cohesive and impactful vision will ever emerge. The essential way to defeat this challenge is simple—there must be a decider. For the vision question, that is typically the CEO, executive director, or majority owner. Yes, they should have a vision committee to drive an effective process, but in the end, the executive leader must make the hard calls, put a stake in the ground, and commit to what they believe is right.
Vision stalls because of a never-ending process.
While structure and process are helpful, it is easy to fall into the traps of timeline bloat and iteration loops. If teams aren’t careful, by the time a vision is finally finished, they may miss their window of opportunity for the vision to be relevant. Vision is only useful if an organization is moving towards it, and that can’t happen if it is still stalled in procedure. That said, this is a common challenge and should be anticipated. With a bit of effective planning, watchful management, and using effective techniques like vision workshops and listening sessions, this can be avoided.
The process doesn’t end when the vision is complete and shared! It must be the north star that to defines strategy, influences culture, and informs execution. It’s all too common for a comprehensive corporate vision to end up on the website as a vision statement and fail to be mentioned or thought of with any seriousness ever again. To get the whole organization on the same page, vision must be communicated with consistency, over and over. And if you actually want people to use the vision, it must be compelling and command attention. If not, the unused vision will result in disenfranchised stakeholders and deflated employees that see all their effort lead to nothing, causing them to hold deep skepticism should any similar effort be undertaken in the future.
Suggestions For a Better Vision Casting Process
As a facilitator that helps organizations cast vision and put that vision into use, there are a few essential approaches that I make sure are in place develop the most effective vision possible.
Create a vision team.
Jim Collins calls this team a “Mars Group”, meaning essentially the team that must understand and embody the corporate values that help guide you all the way to Mars. I think this is right, and I would add that this group should be cross-functional and not only comprised of senior executives so that there is broader diversity and contextual understanding about all areas of the business. This team of no more than 7 or 8 should include the senior leader playing the role of decider, as discussed previously.
Do solid analysis and strategic thinking.
Vision is full of passion, belief and gut-level decisions, yet it should never be disconnected from good analytical thinking about the business and the markets it operates in. This isn’t to say that the vision might transcend where and how the business currently operates, but one must first understand the current state before they can confidentently move towards the future state.
Make sure to have a mission and the values to support the vision.
Vision without a mission (this is also called core purpose) means there is no reason or central focus to answer why the vision matters. Mission is often described as answering the question “If your organization didn’t exist tomorrow, what would the world be missing?” Vision casting is, essentially, detailing what it will look like when your mission is achieved. In the same way, core values, the deeply-held principles or beliefs that guide your organization’s actions and behaviors, will help you realize your vision in a manner that is consistent with your desired intentions.
Develop the vision collaboratively.
As we’ve talked about already, involving your whole organization into the vision casting process will make the end results better. There are any number of ways to do this, but you might think about a few key possibilities: Hosting listening sessions for teams across the organization (Disney’s Ed Catmull nicely details this process at Pixar in Creativity, Inc.), facilitating vision workshops for your vision team and others, and delving into vision when on corporate retreats or strategic offsites.
Now that we’ve looked at the benefits of a vision, the value, potential challenges, and suggestions for the vision casting process itself, you should have a pretty clear idea of why and how you might want to begin the process for your organization. I would encourage you to take that big step forward into the unknown, dream boldly, and cast a vision that is capable of transforming your organization. The future is waiting.