What is your VISION?

The word, vision, is used lots by consultants and facilitators. Groups frequently spend hours constructing vision statements. I find that the word seems to be used in many ways in different environments. The term is used here in a number of articles that I’ve written at this web site. So, I’d like to express how I use it in the context of creating policy.

Humans are creative creatures. We can visualize things that do not exist, and sometimes we can cause those things that we can visualize to materialize.

Sometimes a good thing will materialize by accident or by serendipity. No one planned it, but there it is. All we need to do is recognize that it is there and that it is good. No vision was involved in creating this. While this is wonderful when it happens, we soon learn not to wait for good fortune, but to plan for it.

Planning usually is about creating a path or a series of events that will take us from where we are to where we want to be. If you don’t see the future you desire as a path, then perhaps you see it as an object that does not yet exist, like a sculpture. You look at the block of wood or lump of clay and know that it could become a shape that conveys meaning and emotion. It is still just raw material, but you have a vision of what, in your hands, it can become.

The issue here is that in your mind you can visualize something that does not now exist, but might sometime in the future. It might be a building, or a community program, or a plot for a story, or simply a pizza that I will bake for my family on Friday night. What makes it a vision is that someone can imagine it (or visualize it), and sometimes it might become a reality.

This ability to envision a future, and then to carry out some process to cause it to materialize, is a very powerful capability of humans. It is wonderful to learn to become effective in using this capability.

So, when I talk about describing a vision, or visualizing, or envisioning, I am talking about expressing a clear description of a future that does not yet exist, but could.

The greater the clarity of the vision, the greater the possibility that it will become a useful reality.

The fact that I have a vision of a pizza baked and served on Friday night does not make it happen. But unless I begin with that simple vision, the pizza cannot happen.

The process associated with the pizza is well known to my family, but it has elements that are true for all creative projects. First the vision is clearly expressed: someone in my family says, “How about a pepperoni pizza on Friday night?” My family knows how I make a pizza so these words clearly describe the vision of the pizza and the event. Next, I say, “Okay.” At that point I have made a decision to proceed with making the pizza, and I have also announced my commitment to the project. There are still many steps to go (assemble the ingredients, knead and retard the dough, cook the sauce, dress and bake the pies, invite any guests, etc.) but all of that unfolds fairly predictably once there has been a commitment to accomplishing the vision.

This series of events is easy to understand when we choose to proceed with a familiar project like preparing a traditional dinner. It becomes much harder when the needed future is not known. This is the situation faced by groups who are trying to address a community need.

Addressing a need is the reason that the community has created an association or a non-profit organization — yours, for instance.

Likely you are reading this because you are on the board of such an organization. If it has been around for a long time probably programs are in place, management is showing you monthly statements, and there is a sense that the ongoing business is active and worthy. When someone asks you, “What is the vision for this organization?” the idea that there is a need for a vision seems trivial compared to the reality of what is being accomplished every day by the staff. Surely you are doing your job if the staff is reporting lots of good activities, attendance is up, fund-raising is doing well, and revenues are more than covering the expenses? If you agree that this is all you have to do, let me ask you if, being a board member, means that you are merely along for the ride, or if you think that your role on the board means that you have a contribution to make that is distinct from the role of management?

(In fairness, I will allow that there are some boards where it is satisfactory to go along for the ride, and just be there to help when your skills and knowledge can contribute. These are usually very small organizations; but I know from experience, they can be doing wonderful things for the community. Likely the person running it is the founder and visionary, and when that person no longer wants to do the job the organization will have to grow up or simply decide that it has completed its work.)

In the context of the work of the board, the vision is what the board decides is required to address the need. To recall where this article began, that vision is “a clear description of a future that does not yet exist.”

The vision is not the action plan to achieve the vision. (That sounds like an obvious or silly statement, but in reality many groups cannot make that distinction.) The action plan and the vision are not synonymous. Here is the problem for a new board member who is joining an organization that has some history. Everyone sees what the organization is doing, and often those activities are good for the community. If you find that your job seems to be primarily learning about what the staff is doing and approving that, your role may be useful as a cheerleader, but it is not clarifying the reason the organization exists and ensuring that it achieves what it must. And what is that? Are you, the board, seeing that your organization is addressing the real need? Often, in order to develop that vision of the results that are necessary you will have to begin by knowing the community’s need. Understanding that will require you to focus on the community and not just the action plans of the staff.

When you truly understand the need, you are in a position to begin to articulate a vision of what might be achieved to address that need.

Here is the real strength of human creativity. Dinner on Friday night does not have to be a pizza; that lump of clay can become whatever the sculptor visualizes. The only cost of developing a vision is your time, your understanding of the need, and your imagination of the possibilities. Because a vision seems cheap, and completely fluid, people often treat the vision as trivial. It is not. It is at the stage of envisioning that anything is possible.

It is while developing a vision that a future that can become wonderful, or mediocre, or disastrous really happens.

I’ve been fortunate to be present at the beginning of some big projects. Looking back, I’ve seen that in the early days everyone was so busy wanting to get on with pouring the cement and beginning the project that all of the difficulties that we encountered later could have been easily (and inexpensively) avoided by more thought and clarity about the details back when the plans (the vision) were being drawn up.

The desired future, then, begins as a creative process of envisioning. A vision is easily and inexpensively altered. The act of envisioning can involve many people. Researching and collaborating on the vision, and then testing the vision with the community, should be a big part of informing the wisdom of the board.

A colleague of mine is a nun. During a planning session she once said, “Do you want to make God laugh?” She had our attention. The punch line was, “Tell God your plans.” It is also true that nothing happens exactly as planned. I’m mentioning this here because the act of envisioning, and then working to achieve that vision, will be adventure. Expect that and the adventure will be rewarding (even if it is often difficult), and not just a series of dashed expectations.

A multitude of visions can be created, all of which may be valid. So the process of envisioning should include exploring a variety of futures.

You will discover that some of these visions arise out of people’s wants. We all have wants. There is no power in wanting. Beware of individuals who want only to achieve their personal vision.

As a board, you have an important role to play. You may be depending on professional planners, consultants, architects, and your staff, to advise you which vision is the best to address the community’s need. At some point you will either rubber-stamp that advice, or you will truly understand the options, and you will make a decision.

There is enormous power in that decision. It is the consequence of that decision that resources will be committed and the work of accomplishing that vision begins.

Let me try to summarize. Your job, as a member of the board, is to see to it that your organization achieves what it must. Your organization is there to address a need in the community. To address that need, at some point there will have to be a vision of what can be accomplished to address that need. The board will either accept the vision of someone else, or it will be the author of that vision.

With Policy Governance, the board creates Ends policies. Briefly, Ends are statements about the results that must be produced by the organization, statements about the people who will benefit from those results, or statements that ensure that the cost of the benefit is worth the resources that are consumed. Establishing a vision, then, is a way of determining the necessary results.

With Policy Governance, your meetings should become a time and place to explore futures that do not exist. Policy Governance provides the means for you to use words to describe that future, and then to hold your organization accountable for achieving that future.

© 2009 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] is described in the PG literature. However, to write policy in the first place the board must have a clear vision of what must be achieved. The board members’ total authority to do this comes from their […]


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