What is a vision, and
why should everybody have one? Most grandly, a vision articulates
a preferred future, vividly enough to excite interest and inspire
action, and with sufficient specificity for people to imagine living
in the future described. Currently the term is in danger of becoming
clichéd, hackneyed, and over-used to meaninglessness: in
an age of transition, vision is desperately sought but seems so
elusive that the seeking itself is often ridiculed.
On a simpler level,
a vision is simply the answer to the question, "What do we want
to create?" (Senge, p.xxxx ) The emphasis here lies on the verb
"want:" a vision is a statement of desire that encapsulates our
values, interests, and priorities. In this it differs from other
scenarios of the future: scenarios answer the questions, "what might
happen in the future? what might our actions create?" Scenarios
of alternative futures offer an array of possibilities, some of
which are more plausible, or probable, than others. Clem Bezold
has suggested that "scenarios are futures for the head; visions
are futures for the heart." That is, scenarios are most often used
to forecast different directions of change, and as such contribute
to contingency planning, where visions are used to motivate and
Which provides one answer
to the question, why should everybody have one? Because modern society
abounds with people *using* visions: politicians, businesspeople,
social change organizations, city planners, spiritual organizations
-- the list is endless. Successfully selling a vision of the future
can legitimate political action, accelerate consumer sales, increase
volunteerism, garner support for urban projects, recruit true believers,
and in a wide variety of arenas suspend critical evaluation and
demonstrate all the strengths of ideology. Articulating one's preferred
future takes work, and many people choose the easy road, adopting
one of these pre-packaged visions. It is less risky, and in fact
almost guarantees a community of fellow travellers -- safety in
numbers. But those who take the time to create their own images
of the future create for themselves both the lever with which to
move the world, and the place to stand from which to exert that
leverage: a clearly articulated, wholistic statement of values and
This is not to say that
vision creation is merely the last line of defense for the free
individual (although it may well be); it is also a powerful means
to build active communities and dynamic teams. For those communities
to be strong and the teams effective, however, the visioning must
be jointly undertaken, with everyone participating fully. In the
last few decades, many techniques to create jointly-held visions
have arisen. While they have much in common, they do differ in their
methods and applications.
The following paragraphs
compare five different approaches to creating vision. I will admit
up front that the first approach mentioned, the great leader theory,
is offered as something of a straw man to provide a nadir against
which readers may measure the worth and application of the other
four. The next section briefly describes the five approaches, their
optimal outcomes, and key elements; section three offers examples
of how they might be used in different applications, and the final
section discusses potential outcomes of visioning.
Shazam! Eureka! Voila!
Visions of a better world, of an advanced society, of philanthropic
change, have historically been in the hands of the elite: the Delphic
oracles and other religious prophets; gifted artists, writers, and
philosophers; and charismatic great leaders. The creation of vision
was a mystery, an irreproducible art, composed of sudden insights,
intuitions, and inspirations. Unfortunately, this method is not
amenable to skills transfer, and society could only hope for the
emergence of a visionary thinker at appropriately opportune moments.
Political science and
governance studies in this century awoke slowly to a perception
of vision as the heart of leadership. In discussing the relationship
between leaders and followers, Burns laid the keystone for the argument
in his description of "transformational" leaders (Burns, pp. xxxx).
Burns influenced thinkers and researchers such as Bennis and Nanus,
who focussed specifically on vision, and Tucker, who theorized vision
as the "prescription" leaders offer in response to their insightful
"diagnosis" of social ills. Others have documented and inventoried
the occurrence of vision as the foundation of leadership throughout
Optimal outcomes, key
The Learning Organization
Vision has become a very hot topic in the business and management
literature. Among the best of the books focussed on vision and leadership
in the economic arena is The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge.
Senge proposes the creation of the "learning organization," which
fosters in all its employees the "five disciplines" of personal
mastery, shared vision, and the systems perspective. This perspective
stresses dialogue, in the oldest and most noble sense of the word:
Imaging the Future
Critical Elements: the comparison.
What is useful about the great leader [Shazam! Eureka! Voila!] approach?
Visionary leaders are enormously inspiring, challenging, and fun
people with whom to work. Also, with only one person in charge of
the visioning, contradictions among visions within the community
or organization do not arise.
There are drawbacks
to visionary leaders, however. First, they are difficult to find.
Many people fabricate images of what the future should be: finding
that person who espouses a vision suitable to your community or
organization, who offers truly creative insights into what *you*
want to create, would be unlikely via the hunt and peck method.
Secondly, visionary leaders also need charisma, persuasiveness,
and some communications or media sophistication to disseminate their
vision throughout the community in question. Finally, the great
leader approach is very top-down. People involved are, in the last
analysis, creating someone else's future.
Creating a Global
Commitment to Change