Sep 182011

Why is it so hard at times to move a team toward a shared vision?

Having a shared vision is supposed to make coordinating actions easier. It is also one way we avoid becoming victims of circumstance, “drifting in the marketplace”.

Producing shared vision, meanwhile, requires effective communication – and the larger the group, the more simple and direct the communication must be, or people won’t “get it”.

The challenge of simple and direct communication is that it requires great clarity of thought and more than a little courage.
Leading Change (Kotter, 1996), pp. 89-90.

Which brings us to this topic of this post.

Sometimes I struggle with clarity of thought, and sometimes I struggle with courage. As I think about it, the first makes room for the second… but I need both to produce the shared vision I’m after.

Developing clarity of thought

I was in a management meeting back in 2003 where a divisional VP was complaining about corporate email services. She mentioned that IT infrastructure services should be “transparent to end users”.

Most IT leaders I know would generally agree with her – we try to avoid forcing end users (customers) to speak in our language, care about our server names or even notice when we need to upgrade an infrastructure component.

But how often do you think IT leaders integrate a simple statement like hers into their visions? I’d love to think the answer is “all the time”, but I expect that for every statement like hers that I remember, I’ve personally missed others that could have really shaped my vision.

So always be on the lookout for other examples that can help shape your vision – economic, technological, political or demographic.

Clarity helps produce courage

Then when you have a list or inventory of the domains that affect your vision, maybe the best way to refine them is to speak with others about them (that is, with those who are competent to speak about them).

Be open to their contradictions and their redirection. Your goal is not to be “right”, but to develop a vision that is clear against which you will have direction and focus for your work and your career. You don’t have to act on their philosophies, but you can accept that they think differently and use it to shape how you think, too.

Last week I was speaking with an IT networking client who was struggling to take on a leadership posture. When I asked him about his vision for his area of expertise, he spoke about “the cloud”, wireless, mobility, near field communications (NFC), various application services being provided by Google and similar companies, etc.

He could have picked up his inventory from ReadWriteWeb or any of a number of sources. Knowing the domains and the technologies involved is where many IT folks find strength, but by itself it does not translate into a vision of some future situation that others will follow.

It is in getting down to a deeper personal meaning that vision takes hold and helps in leading others.

So I asked my client, “What does the cloud mean to you?” What is its effect on your life, your work, your career? What will you exploit about it? In five years, what will your world look like because of it?

Creative tension

Ultimately, the better we can describe a future life in all the domains we care about (not just one), the more we can really clarify our vision.

A rubber band, stretched between your vision and current reality

It is not enough for my client to think about the cloud when he has many other concerns as well. Describing a good future meaning for each of his domains of concern will be a greater help to him.

Don’t leave it to chance, as just an inventory of technologies… describe it.

Don’t do it because somebody said your career will be more successful if you always look ahead five years.

Do it because your mind’s eye sees the future situation as an appropriate, consequential and powerful outcome of what you see happening today and how your actions are required to make it happen.

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge describes a metaphor for creative tension as follows:

Imagine a rubber band, stretched between your vision and current reality. When stretched, the rubber band creates tension… There are only two possible ways for the tension to resolve itself: pull reality toward the vision or pull the vision toward reality. Which occurs will depend on whether we hold steady to the vision.
The Fifth Discipline (Senge, 1994), p. 150.

Creative tension is a source of energy for “more than a little courage”. The better you can describe, the better you can see, the stronger the force you can bring to bear in sharing your vision with others.

Just remember to keep it simple as you communicate.

We can discuss more about courage in another post.

  11 Responses to “Great clarity of thought and more than a little courage…”

  1. The main idea of clarity when expressing thoughts is very important. And I agree that many managers lack a true vision. I do like your idea of courage; that concept is one thing I will take away from article. I know now people need to have the courage to be understood. And that is not rare by any means but certainly uncommon. 🙁

    • Daud, thanks for your comment. Courage is a curious notion to me, and I would have gone deeper into the subject but the post was getting pretty long.

      With respect to vision, most people I have met can say something about what they want in life for their home, spouse or kids… but may not give a lot of thought to what “a good life” would look like for their company, role or career. Finding ways to clarify their thinking might go a long way to producing better outcomes in their work.

  2. I liked how you described vision and reality. I would like to add to it – “If there is a big gap between your vision and reality and you want to stick to your vision, just imagine the tension you have to face. rubberband can even break as you have other things in your life too and we can’t ignore their effect on what are we trying to achieve. So my idea is to keep the focus on not too far and deal the tension or stretch in pieces. keep your eyes on your ultimate vision though and one day you will reach there.”

    • Ritu, thank you for the comment.

      It is possible that someone can live with the tension for a long time. Many people do live with a sense that things are not as they would like them, but they can’t (or won’t) act to change the situation. So the “rubber band” metaphor works best as an allegory – if the band cannot break, then the tension lasts until we either 1) move toward our vision, or 2) give up on our vision. The option that the tension lasts the rest of our lives is always there.

      The thing is, the “easy” way out is to either accept the tension indefinitely or give up on our vision… if avoiding stress or marginalization is important, then working on “great clarity of thought and more than a little courage” seems to me like an important investment to make.

      Your idea of not focusing too far and taking on the tension in increments sounds adaptive and possibly better for risk mitigation. To declare one day that you will be the CEO of General Electric seems fraught with risk, though there could be many great career opportunities on the way to that one. Nevertheless, you cannot lay out the incremental steps without some idea of the direction you want to head in the long run… otherwise you cannot say your actions are directionally correct or not, and then “steer the ship” accordingly.

  3. Courage by definition means: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty”.

    Exploring this path, I am struck by the words “danger”, “fear”, and “difficulty”. These are words that apply in battles, wars, firefighting, in deserts, jungles, oceans, and like situations, when clarity of purpose and singularity of focus is needed to survive and adrenalin drives the instant decisions.

    Such situations are by nature relatively short term. Our Wall Street driven culture has pushed businesses to make decisions based on quarterly performance. Adjustment to plan have to happen quickly. Sometimes course corrections take organizations in opposite direction to their vision, because the attributes and conditions (economic, competitive, political, natural, etc) that influence direction, change quickly these days.

    Shared vision, on the other hand, is a time consuming endeavor – and changing vision and direction is like turning an airplane carrier around, and doing so in mid-battle or mid-storm is particularly difficult.

    That’s a problem business leaders have. Sometimes they have a vision and individually they can adjust it, to reflect changes in conditions on the ground (reality) and they move forward; but their team does not follow. Not because they did not get the memo but because it takes a group longer to adjust to the change (the larger the group, the slower the change), and in the meantime the leader is out there alone, exposed, without team cover, and sometime doesn’t even know it.

    The question Seng poses: “pull reality toward the vision or pull the vision toward reality?” is nice in theory but in reality, sometime holding steady to the vision, as Seng suggests, is the wrong decision and executing on change – now, that indeed requires clarity of purpose and courage.

    • Elizabeth, thank you for sharing your insights. It is good to pick a distinction for courage, because it lets others know your starting point. As I mentioned in the post, I have another writing I am working on related to courage because it can take us into other directions as well.

      One way I can frame the context for you is that the quote at the start of the post is from the book “Leading Change”, so this is all about change. A leader whose vision is to keep everything on a course that ignores or denies change has other issues to face. But in leading change, we need to bring our teams along as you suggest… and that takes clear and concise communications… which requires clarity of purpose and [more than a little] courage.

      So when we get to Peter’s writing about creative tension, he is not saying if you stick to your guns, life will turn out in spite of all that is happening around you. Systems thinking practices suggest we are always working in feedback cycles against which we steer our vision. Neither passivity nor obstinance will make an impossible vision happen.

      If you are interested in further exploration of the depth of thinking under Senge’s writing, I recommend The Fifth Discipline as well as “Presence”, which was sort of a sequel (though less specifically business focused, in my assessment).

  4. […] Great clarity of thought and more than a little courage… […]

  5. On LinkedIn Group project management in – depth study, Ira Miller wrote:

    From a leadership perspective, communication is the most ubiquitous of the 5 Undelegate-able Responsibilities of Leadership (see white paper: corporate promotion omitted).

    However, it has been my experience that executive leaders over estimate the amount of agreement among their staffs and employees regarding the company’s direction and methods. The question becomes: “How to identify the schism and bring everyone together?”

    I have use the annual strategic planning activity as the time to do this. Employing a proprietary, Internet-based questionnaire, all the participants respond (anonymously) to a series of best practice statements that roll up into critical categories for having a successful business. They then force rank the categories. That provides a matrix of performance against importance. The high importance / low performance quadrant houses the most important issues for that company.

    Facilitated meetings with selected employee / management group(s) and then with senior management narrow the focus for the next planning period (changes that need to happen).

    Communication actions are then developed to share the plan with all constituencies in a way that is meaningful to each.

    The leverage this process brings to the organization is immense. Basically, all decision-making is informed by the communicated plan.

    Imagine what can be accomplished if everyone in the organization is working on items of strategic importance!

    • Those are useful insights Ira. Meanwhile, outside annual planning it is important to embody your vision and not forget it. Holding onto it at all times, your actions gain purpose, and your capacity to communicate with others and lead others increases as they see consistency, intention, direction and focus.

      Kotter illustrated in a revealing way how formal communication of your vision may reach most employees around half of one percent of the time. Even with social tools today (with which people are flooded to an even greater extent), leaders must be responsible to carry their direction and focus into the backdrop of every conversation.

    • To continue the conversation, Bill Youngdahl then added:

      We’ve found that even in successful organizations, 40% of employees feel that their leaders are not clarifying purpose and direction. Worse yet, only 37% felt inspired by their leaders, IN SUCCESSFUL ORGANIZATIONS. Ira, you seem to be doing great work in improving the elusive but essential component of aligned purpose and clarity of intent.

      Juran defined a project as a problem scheduled for solution. The problem, as Juran defined it, is the gap between where we are now and where we want to be. This dovetails nicely with visioning since project thinking and action combine to make the vision a reality. What Kotter seems to underplay, despite his immensely positive impact, is the closing of the gap – at least beyond notions of removing obstacles and creating short-term wins. One leader I am trying to influence has a compelling vision but he layered 12 new initiatives, all of “equal” importance, into a stretched matrix organization. The vision will not be realized and he is losing credibility. Leadership has to be more connected to project (critical) thinking and realities of getting things done.

      Ken, your points about the importance of consistency, intention, direction and focus are spot on. What I hear Ira saying is that the secret sauce is found in combining an inspiring vision with many important enabling approaches.

      The best visions are the ones we create ourselves with our teams to support the vision of the overall organization.

      • And Larry Lacy added:

        Hi Bill, it has been our experience that your percentages are a bit optimistic. Many of our clients promote individuals into leadership positions without any training as to how to be a leader. They were great technicians but terrible leaders. With our process we are able to turn that around most of the time. The three elements we find is of need, is Communication, Trust, and Inspirational Leadership. Many times the middle managers “filter” communication and which case the level of trust goes down. If the leaders do feel secure, they will not create a high level of Team Engagement. Here is data that Gallop recently released: for every disengaged employee it costs the organization an average of $13K per year per employee. It should be noted that further research from multiple sources in all types of industries, shows that for every 1% improvement in culture there is a corresponding 2% to 3% increase in revenue.

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