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Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook (1. Building a Unifying Vision)


Make an Impact, Inspire Your Organization, and Get to the Next Leve
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Your role as a leader is to shape a compelling vision to fit your organization (or unit, or team) and its environment, and then recraft it periodically as conditions change.

The practice of making a vision is challenging because:

  • It can be hard to determine where it’s the right time to develop a new vision; you don’t want to do it too often and risk burnout, or not often enough and risk complacency.
  • It’s easy to be too timid in setting a vision; to do its job, a vision must be bold.
  • Many of your colleagues and constituents will have competing ideas and points of view and you’ll need to corral these into a coherent direction.
  • The process can be time-consuming, so you’ll have to carve out time to focus on creating the vision while dealing with shorter-term issues that will seem more urgent and compelling.
  • Assuming you are not the CEO, you’ll need to connect the vision for your specific team or business unit to your company’s overall vision, without losing the overall energy and meaning of the broader vision. Sometimes this is just a smaller version of the corporate vision, but it can be supportive while somewhat different.

As part of this practice, leader need to first understand what a good vision is; they then need to lead a process for determining the vision for their organization or unit.

Creating a Vision for the World Bank

Our dream is a world free of poverty.

  • To fight poverty with passion and professionalism for lasting results
  • To help people help themselves and their environment by providing resources, sharing knowledge, building capacity, and forging partnerships in the public and private sectors
  • To be an excellent institution able to attract, excite and nurture diverse and committed staff with exceptional skills who know how to listen and learn

The power of the World Bank’s vision was not just a matter of framing strategy and building engagement, however. It also was unifying, allowing the Bank to leverage the contributions of its individual employees at scale.

What is a vision?

A vision is a picture or snapshot of what the organization or your unit wants to accomplish over the next several years or where its efforts are pointing it in the long term. The vision conveys a direction – not how to get there (that’s strategy), nor the immediate measurable goals that drive performance, but a context within which specific strategies and goals can be framed.

MissionValuesVision
What it isReason for organization’s existenceOperating guidelines for how organizational members behaveAspiration of what the organization wants to accomplish; gives individuals a connected sense of purpose
Time frameEnduringEnduring but with specific emphasis depending on the timesRefreshed and revised as the environment changes
StyleLegalisticClear and descriptiveEmotional and simple
How it is usedProvides criteria for determining whether to engage in certain lines of business or marketsprovides basis for discussion of personal performance and deciding on ambiguous ethical situationsProvides the context for strategy and goal setting

What makes a vision compelling?

A good vision is aspirational, almost dreamlike, simple, and compelling. It’s the kind of statement that should make you want to be part of the organization, to join in the pursuit of that vision. It has emotional resonance. The vision also must be clear: if it’s confusing or vague, nobody will follow it. Finally, it must be bold: you must push your organization to look to the future, see around corners, and point toward something audaciously far in front of it.

Criteria for organizational vision

  • Conveys a picture of the future
  • Bold
  • Simple and clear
  • Emotionally compelling
  • Aspirational
  • Provides context for strategic planning

Boldness

For the most compelling vision, going bold doesn’t mean financial success, but rather striving for an exciting contribution to customers or to society.

The vision cascade

Crafting your vision

Step 1. Determine whether the time is right

When to develop a new vision

Finding the capacity to do this isn’t easy, particularly since most leaders already are starved for time. Carving out additional time to devote to vision is hard and can easily be put off until later. So set aside a particular time each year to reflect on your vision and think about whether it still fulfills its purpose.

When to stay the course

Don’t be too fast to reset your organization’s path. Many visions will last for years and don’t need to be changed significantly. The amount of time and work it takes to create a vision is significant – and can actually be destructive if you are pivoting too quickly – so it might be that al you need to do is make sure that everyone understands it.

How to gauge whether you need a new vision

If you get many different answers or the answers aren’t convincing, then perhaps it’s time to get to work on a new or refreshed vision. You should also periodically ask yourself and your team whether there have been significant changes in the business environment, technology, or competition that should trigger a rethinking of the vision.

Step 2. Develop your starting-point vision

Once you determine that it is time for a new or revised vision, you need to put together a draft starting point to set the process in motion and to convey your perspective on what to include. This doesn’t mean that you need to be the sole visionary for your company or your part of it, but at the same time, you can’t be absent from the process and just give your vision team a blank sheet of paper.

Kouzes and Posner strongly suggest that you start by talking to and listening to your own people, both direct reports and other followers. Find out their ideas, dreams, thoughts, hopes, and concerns about the future for your team, unit, or organization. Tap into their aspirations and find out what would be exciting for them so that the vision you eventually create will resonate with the people who have to make it happen.

A vision-creating exercise

Members of a sales team came up with titles such as “director of customer first impressions”, “customer dreams fulfillment manager”, and “red carpet roller”. All these indicate how the team wants to make customers feel special in their interactions with the company, which is a great basis for a team vision.

Arussy’s book Next Is Now: 5 Steps for Embracing Change – Building a Business That Thrives into the Future.)

Once you settle on a focus or theme for your draft vision, also consider how to be bold, audacious, and inspirational. Don’t settle for a vision that you know you can achieve, but rather something that will require creative thought, discovery, and experimentation. Remember that your purpose here is to inspire and energize, not to tell people what to do.

Step 3. Engage stakeholders

Once you come up with your own draft ideas, you need to engage others in developing and fleshing them out. Involving others with different perspectives ensures that you create the best vision possible and also jump-starts buy-in throughout the organization.

Who should you involve?

  • Do you want to limit the process to only a few people?
  • Do you want to engage your boss or other senior executives?
  • Should you engage your customers?

What should the process be?

One is to trigger the process with a rough first draft. Another is to provide a team with some key principles and then let team members sketch out a first draft. Another is to develop questions to address in focus groups or through interviews, and then use the emerging themes as a basis for the vision. As you decide on the right path, consider how you’ll incorporate your point of view from the previous step into this process.

Step 4. Align people’s work with the vision

The next and perhaps most crucial step is to make the vision come alive by helping everyone on your team or in your organization see how their own work relates to it.

Make it a conversation

You should lead some of these conversations yourself, but you should also encourage other leaders and managers in your unit to do the same with their people.

Tell a story

A key skill as you sell a vision is the ability to tell a good story about it. A story can connect the company’s vision to real people, real situations, and real emotions so that people feel that their work makes a difference.

Another way to tell a story is to visualize it. A tool called a “from-to-chart” can help capture the idea of where you are now versus where you are going to emphasize the direction that you are setting.

Questions to Consider

  • Vision alignment. Does your team have a clear, shared vision for where it is going? If so, does it align with your personal vision for the team and the large company vision?
  • Timing. It is time to revise or recraft the vision for your team? What would be the purpose of working on the vision now? How would it make a difference?
  • Future focus. To what extent does your team’s vision give everyone an exciting aspiration for the future? Does the vision look far enough ahead to get everyone thinking creatively about their work?
  • Being bold. What big ideas do you have about your team’s vision? Can you paint a picture of the future that people would be excited about working toward – and that would engage their hearts as well as heads?
  • Stakeholders. Who do you need to involve in crafting or modifying your team’s vision? Team members? Internal or external customers? Your boss? Other stakeholders?
  • Precess. What process will you use to craft or modify your team’s vision? Will you take a first cut? Can you assign the work to a team? Should you bring everyone together? Can you use virtual conversations or your internal social media?
  • Communication. What stories can you use to bring your vision to life so it’s not just a slogan or catchphrase? Can you portray the vision with a from-to chart?

Next (2. Developing Strategy)

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