Can we really trust one person’s vision?

I’ve just finished working my way through a session entitled Teams from the Bringing People Together section of the VFQ course. The session discusses a lot of what Dan Rough recently published in a post about Big Teams but it also highlights a number of other issues relating to teams – including the need for a shared vision.

People often criticise those from younger generations for having no direction or vision. On an individual level, this criticism can be acted upon. After all, it is fairly easy to set a vision for yourself as an individual (even if the implementation itself isn’t so easy!). Things start to become challenging when you have to engage others in your vision. Still – we can imagine that on a team level it remains somewhat achievable. But establishing a vision at an organisational level, across thousands of employees surely requires a little something more – sharing a vision.

So – a shared vision is important. Gerard H. Langeler reflects on Mentor Graphics’ stumble in the early 1990’s as the company fell into what he calls “The Vision Trap”, where sharing wasn’t the focus. A series of visions for the company that confused their efforts saw them post their first ever losses. Things got worse and the company was forced to lay off over 15% of the workforce. When a return to the vision that had produced such early success for them in the first place: “Build Something People Will Buy” was announced, it was with “immediate and lengthy applause”. The staff had bought back in. Sharing had saved them.

So, where does a successful vision for a company come from… and how does the company make sure that their vision is realised? Perhaps, in a small company, one could assume that the vision comes from the founder. But what about larger organisations – who sets the vision there?

Browse any corporate website today and you’ll find mission statements, visions and values where the company asserts its direction and goals – “what we stand for”. But who sets this agenda, and how do they get others to follow? Often we think that it’s the CEO, or some other executive who has the power to make such choices. But are these companies too large to experience change through the vision of a single person – are there simply too many stakeholders to answer to? Whatever your answer, I’ve found a particular example that shows individuals do still have the power to change things…

During the 1990’s Robin Waters was able to help promote a vision that saw Target grow from a $3bn to a $63bn dollar retailer. Surprisingly – she did this without the typical spreadsheets and PowerPoints – she did it with feeling. Bringing jars of colourful M&Ms to meetings, and showing colourful Apple iMacs was Waters’ way of demonstrating the need to inject vibrancy into the product lines at Target.

This is what Kotter and Cohen in The Heart of Change describe as the SEE-FEEL-CHANGE sequence for successful change. That is, change inspired at an emotional level. Waters’ direct demonstrations injected energy into the company and brought others on-board with her idea. These meetings were the catalyst that saw the transformation of Target from a behind-trend to an on-trend retailer. Waters had a vision and she inspired others to support her.

So a vision to create an effective team starts with one person? From our two examples above it appears so. Key to both of these stories was that they generated support for the vision. It’s not about sharing the creation of a vision, but rather the sharing the implementation of that vision.

Whilst at university I carried out work for a number of organisations. Retrospectively applying this notion of a shared vision to these experiences shows that it holds true – those organisations that I was part of that succeeded in their goals were those that experienced the most buy-in from their various stakeholders. The team that I worked with at Oxford Fashion Week was a made up of volunteers. Team members who worked hard did so because they were following the vision “to produce the most spectacular series of fashion events Oxford has ever seen”. Other organisations that I was part of failed to perform. Take, for example, the common room of which I was an undergraduate member; whilst we had an agenda, we certainly didn’t have a shared vision…

For companies and individuals right now, there is no reason why one can’t create a shared vision that your staff and other stakeholders can buy in to. You might previously have assumed that you needed to consult to see what the vision should be, but the evidence above shows that it can come from one person – maybe even you! Others can then decide whether or not to share in it, and be compelled by it. Vision-sharing is how the VSOs of the world function – they appear to have the most dutiful, committed workers out there… and they’re not even being paid!

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