What might a powerful vision contribute with in organizational change work and what are components essential to the successful implementation of this vision? Under what circumstances might a clearly outlined vision actually hinder the development of a new organization, and what might be alternative ways of crafting a common path forward?
For a class in Organization Development, taught by Michael Park, I read the book “Guiding growth” (2003) by Mark Lipton, describing the importance of vision in the growth of an organization, giving me a chance to reflect upon my own thoughts and experiences around vision as part of a larger change effort. The book outlines the vision process and framework, emphasizing the importance of proper integration of this vision into the very fabric of the organizational strategy, culture, people processes, organizational design and executive group.
With a background in Graphic Design and branding, I´ve seen the immense power of a vision and an identity given appropriate form, in terms of focusing energies, drawing outside attention, inspiring commitment and imagination. Knowing who you are and where you want to go as an organization, seeing this identity given form and language, and projecting this out in the world – not to mention the value of the self reflective process in terms of purpose and values that goes into any vision process – surely has tremendous value.
Having a clearly defined vision also relates to systems thinking, insofar that the goal of a system is described as one of the “highest” leverage points in terms of achieving systems change. Or, in the words of systems thinker Donella Meadows:
Worth noting, is that this goal is determined more by behavior than declared goal, pointing to a common gap between a shallow vision that remains distant from the actual day-to-day rituals and procedures of an organization. In response to this common gap, Mark Lipton makes a solid case for an integrated kind of visioning process, carefully aligning the vision with organizational culture, strategy, people processes and human resources. This vision is then what guides the behavior of the larger organization, minimizing the need for rules, threats or direct supervision. The successfully integrated vision further functions as the basis for the strategic plan, it is what motivates individuals and facilitates the recruitment of talent, it functions as the guiding principle for organizational decisions and design, and it is what keeps the members of the organization focused on what is most important to the organization.
I believe that the model Mark Lipton outlines can be applied successfully to many organizations of various scales, outside of the corporate sector which his work is mostly geared towards. I can see it adding particular value to organizations such as classic bureaucracies, who according to principles of traditional management practice, are oftentimes geared towards means rather than ends, leading to risk-averse and inefficient organizations. I can also see it implemented successfully to social change movements of various kinds, ensuring that whatever “talk” is matched with “the walk”; providing opportunities for direction of social critique towards a powerful change vision.
Considering all these opportunities of a strong vision, what might be its drawbacks? In Mark Lipton´s vision model, strong leaders and goals are favored, giving leadership the role of “holding” the vision, guiding its implementation and overseeing its effects. This might put the model at the risk of ending up in a sort of modernist, “master mind” approach, with a linear mindset of working towards a predetermined goal, reducing the opportunities for continued learning, co-creation, evolution and change.
In terms of contexts or organizations where I would not recommend its use, I would say any context that would be stifled by an “overarching vision” or purpose defined in a singular form, but would rather benefit from a multiplicity of conflicting perspectives continuously evolving together. Simply put, organizations in need of more of a “learning culture” rather than a unified vision and end goal, leaving room for emergence, evolution and co-creation of values and norms. This approach might still benefit from aspects if the vision process (such as articulating a vision of the values I just mentioned), but then used in a much more selective way, and perhaps, in the words of my Trans D classmate Sankalp, be referred to as “protocol” rather than a vision. Organizations that might fall within this category might be for instance political non-partisan or educational platforms, or network structures of various kinds.
Finally, summarizing these learnings from a Conflictual Harmony perspective, the vision processes we seek to lead, are those that reflect a space rather than a static image or a statement. That, in the words of polarity management, define polarities to manage, rather than static utopias to fulfill. We seek to craft visions with room to evolve with new insight, feedback and experience, moving between continued analysis and evolution of the current state (problem analysis) versus the preferred state (vision). Continuously asking questions of what is, what if, what works, over and over, from different angles. An evolving, conversational kind of vision, in different stages of clarity at different times, sort of like this platform of KOKO Labs itself :)!
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