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The VISION Thing

July 4, 2011
Updated December 16, 2014

We hear a lot about how important it is to have a vision, whether for an organization or at the individual level. During my three decades with the federal government I was part of numerous vision and mission-building exercises. Similar to those done in the private sector the results were often tepid and short-lived. This is not surprising since the North American mentality of wanting instant results without sustained commitment, combined with limited attention spans, pervades our organizations.

Simply stated: You get out what you put in. Don’t be surprised if your instant pudding suddenly deflates.

But with this rather pessimistic opening, should we just ditch the “vision thing” and try to cope with the growing avalanche of change?

Absolutely not.


Because a well-crafted vision, co-created with employees – people – can be an extremely powerful guiding light, enabling an organization to confront major internal and external change events. The analogy is whitewater canoeing (one of my past recreational enjoyments). Entering a river’s rapids without first thinking through what your final destination will be is a fool’s game. The stakes are big – injuries, or even death.

However, if you know where you want to end up and have a plan for contingencies, then your odds for a successful outcome are that much better.

The same with organizations.

Visualize where you want to be and how you will get there, but understand that along the way unanticipated events will undoubtedly occur. However, by co-creating a vision with people, building the capacity for change adaptability and sharing the leadership your organization will be able to successfully tackle any event.

Sure there may be some significant pain and adjustments along the way. But when the organization emerges on the other side of the whitewater INTACT, the hard work and commitment by EVERYONE in the organization will have proved to be an invaluable investment.

No man was ever wise by chance.

– Seneca

Photos by J. Taggart (Mt. Washington and Penobscot River, Maine)

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2011 6:19 pm

    I wonder how many of these “mission-building” exercises are organized by management, but not really “bought-into” by employees? I think that’s what happened in a couple of similar exercises I participated in years ago in a couple of organizations.

    • July 6, 2011 6:41 pm

      These are invariably done TO employees not done WITH them. Big difference.

  2. July 4, 2011 5:56 pm

    Jim, this is a great reminder of an old theme! And yes, I believe it is still an important thing to do. The challenge remains in the implementation–if it is to make a difference.

    This is where I’ve always advocated a tight link between developing he mission and strategies with the action plan to implement. Call it an “end-means hierarchy” as that is literally what it is.
    With the end-means hierarchy in hand, the necessary performance metrics can be identified, negotiated with the employees who are to deliver the product.

    • July 4, 2011 7:15 pm

      Thanks for your insights, Alcide. I agree totally with integrating mission, strategic thinking with how to execute. They’re often left as separate entities.

  3. July 4, 2011 5:33 pm

    I think it’s easier to get on board with vision in the private sector because the biggest picture for a private sector company is easier to grasp mentally – while government is a huge and unwieldly business where the government of the day is at odds with the mandate of the departments

    I don’t know if any show has ever better captured this than the British program “Yes, Minister” – the government business is done by departments while the politicans simply rotate either by party or by portfolio with little understanding of the department’s mandate and functions and certainly not with the ame concerns – departments being occupied with carrying out their regulatory or other functions and political parties the business of hanging onto power – which is often done at the expense of unpopular departments.

    • July 4, 2011 7:20 pm

      Thanks RN. Yes, I agree that the public sector is much more complicated than business, something that is well not appreciated. In reference to Yes Minister, the turnover in Canada’s public sector at senior levels has greatly weakened the ability of departments to adapt to change.

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