Vision is dead (long live visioning)
It’s time to stop focusing on vision – on peering forward into the mystical never-never prescribing an ideal state
And expecting leaders to have a magical ability to predict, present and make possible the future
Let’s let go of confining ourselves to a potentially unrealistic and inherently limiting end-point, to a ‘vision’. Because whilst vision may be a “compelling picture of the future that inspires commitment” (Manasse 1986[i]), it is also only one picture of many tens of thousands possible; from only one perspective, the perspective of who we are, where we are, what we know and how we understand things here and now. A vision, a single framed picture, may actually prevent us exploring new opportunities, blind us to new threats and subdue our responsiveness to new knowns.
If we know one thing it is that the world is a fast changing, and ever more ambiguous, complex place that, to avoid its traps, to take advantage of new gaps, a place that demands a more iterative, flexible response – response as living process rather than outcome.
So let’s NOT let go of visioning – the process….
And let’s not let go of purpose, the force, the ‘why’ which molds meaning for our people and provides the solid foundation, the guidance on where to go, how to respond and act.
On visioning as process: After more than a decade of supporting visioning work globally with the big, the bold, the bounded, broke and the brave, I’m still struck by how the process of visioning is so problematic and often painful. It’s a process that can spin into spiralling questioning, into multiple stucks, often lurching into even more fuzziness on the erratic, spiky progress towards some sort of clarity.
And that’s OK. In fact it’s better than OK – it’s a response that matches the task at hand.
Why? Because, as noted, our world is also a messy, fuzzy place littered with webs of intangibles, endless often conflicting information, continuous but inconsistent political and technological eruptions and, if we’re to believe some commentators, getting fuzzier, more volatile and ambiguous day by day.
Wickedness: I’m reminded of Rittel and Webber’s[ii] typology of problems, the world is not ‘tame’, it’s a ‘wicked’ place i.e. it’s a complex, tricky to navigate and challenging place. In Grint’s view such a wicked scenario demands more than a ‘management’ type response (the ‘seen it before, apply a process and fix’ response). Rather a ‘wicked’ place demands a leadership response: an ongoing process of intelligence seeking, multi-contributor multi-perspective, examining and re-examining of information, ideas and biases; a steady holding of oneself in a deeply uncomfortable place of ‘not-knowing the answers’; yet with the prescience to continue to search.
Simpson et al[iii] draw on Keats idea of ‘negative capability’ arguing that in an organisational context we, leaders, need “the ability not to do something, to resist the tendency to disperse into actions that are defensive rather than relevant for the task.” We need to be able to sit into the problem, the situation and keep thinking, to (be seen to) not urgently solve, not press the button, to not act – well not immediately. Which ironically is pretty much the opposite of popular leadership expectations of decisiveness, action with urgency and intent etc.
So, keep visioning, keep ‘problematising’, keep the complexity and the opportunities it presents alive and energised, keep working from the insights gained with each new step in the dance of progress, keep asking questions towards ‘better’.
Solid foundations: Keep going deeper into the complexity, keep that drive for betterment by keeping hold of the ‘why’, your purpose, your guiding principle and values. Work from this solid foundation. Let these constants be your rudder to steer through the turbulence of today and tomorrow.
Know why you’re here, who you are and what you’re amazing at (and what you’re not). Re-focus energy into the here and now, on being the best we possibly can, being actively seeking and strengthening, being agile, responsive, confident, being agentic, being ready.
Be alertly and intelligently connected to the environments, organisations and communities you work with, and equally alertly connected to those that make-up who you are as a firm.
Keep connected to the past holding lessons learned, a foot lifted ready to step into the future and the attention grounded firmly into the present. Keep readiness, keep looking into the dark places and strengthening yourself and your people. Keep hope, keep ambition, keep these going rooted from multiple intelligences and germane capabilities.
Keep visioning wisely. Keep adjusting and growing new visions that speak of who you are and why you’re here as new wicked worlds emerge and fade. Keep visioning in the here and now.
[i] Manasse, A.L. (1986). Vision and leadership: Paying attention to intention. Peabody Journal of Education, 63(1), 150-173.
[ii] Rittel, H & Webber, M. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Science, 1973, 4 155-69. Here they describe two types of problems – ‘Tame’ problems might be complicated but can usually be solved by a single process or set of actions i.e. they are likely to be things you’ve seen before and that you can therefore pull a tried and tested reposnse out fo the bag. Tame problems in essence require a Management style solution (Grint, K. 2005, Problems, problems, problems: the social construction of leadership, Human Relations Vol 58(II) 1467-1494). Wicked problems, on the other hand are complex, often ‘intractable, with no easy or single, right or wrong solution. These, according to Grint, require a leadership style response – drawing on experts, opinions, new questions, new ways of thinking to get to a better place.
[iii] Simpson, P., French, R. and Harvey, C. (2002), ‘Leadership and negative capability’, Human Relations, 55(10), 1209-1226.