Crafting Vision, Finding Vision

Given how frequently the word finds its way into discourse in management circles, it is worth considering what vision is and where it actually comes from. What is the genesis of a vibrant and compelling sense of organizational vision?

It is not uncommon to hear people speak about creating or crafting vision. Such sentiments are not inaccurate per se, but it’s important to understand that true vision is less something that is created than it is excavated from within.

Vision is a thing the roots of which can be found in each one of us already, if we take the time to look. It is something that needs to be found rather than created, something to be articulated rather than crafted.

For some leaders, vision lies near the surface. It is apparent and relatively straightforward to identify and articulate. For others, vision lies a bit deeper and must be unearthed though a more sustained process of inquiry, introspection and discovery.

But either way, the search is a crucial step of the process and ingredient of the final product. The process of looking within, that inventory-taking of personal values, motivations and dreams, allows leaders to find what will not only inspire themselves, but others as well.

So what goes into a compelling vision? Marketplace metrics have a role, but rarely are effective organizational visions entirely or even predominantly defined by them. In a similar vein, money is indispensable to organizational functioning, but the pursuit of profit will never, by itself, create enthusiasm and commitment. Employees do not cherish dreams of growing market share or hold within their hearts aspirations of happy shareholders and smiling board members.

To capture the spirit of employees at its most vibrant and vital, then, leaders need to ask themselves not only why their organization and its products and services do exist, but why they should exist. To pull the best from their employees, they need to answer who really cares if their business exists at all, and why the world is better off with it than without it.

At its highest, vision defines an organization by the contributions it makes to society.  Statements of this kind touch on issues of the personal and the human, considerations that speak to a universal longing for a better future. And it is in these terms, therefore, that leaders can most effectively articulate their organization’s most inspiring understanding of itself and its work.

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Vision and the Possibility of Achievement

Perhaps you’ve heard the parable of the three bricklayers. Coming across a group of masons at work on the roadside, a traveler asks what each is doing. “Laying brick,” says the first, remaining at his work. “Constructing a wall,” the second replies with a shug. The third wipes his brow and answers, “Building a cathedral.”

The story hinges, of course, on the idea of vision. Vision is that essential bond that connects the duties we are asked to perform with the aims those duties are designed to advance. Vision tells us where we are going, and invests our work with meaning and significance.

Fired by a clear and compelling vision of the future, the intern no longer makes copies simply because he is low man on the totem pole. Instead, he is providing a service, however routine, that facilitates the distribution of resources to those in need.

Motivated by a meaningful sense of mission, the receptionist answers phones not just to earn a paycheck, but to further production of a product beneficial to the public.

“A shared vision is not an idea,” writes Peter Senge in his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline, “It is not even an important idea such as freedom. It is, rather, a force in people’s hearts, a force of impressive power.”

Vision is, in many ways, what raises a job to a calling. It is the difference between a workman laying brick and a workman building a cathedral.

A compelling vision of the future is also what makes achievement possible.

Consider again the work of the three masons. The first lays a brick, lays another, lays a third. He can churn out product aplenty, but he can achieve almost nothing because his work, in his eyes, is nothing more than an endless string of bricks.

The second enjoys a much greater capacity for achievement because of his wider scope of purpose. He can admire the craftsmanship of the walls he has built, can appreciate the attention to detail that his efforts showcase.

But only the third finds emotional resonance in his work. He can take pride in finishing the sanctuary where the faithful will pray, can feel satisfaction in setting out the courtyard where children will gather. He can know, at the end of a long day, that he has accomplished something of value.

Achievement requires a standard by which success and failure will be judged.  Vision provides that definition of what is actually being accomplished.

Vision does not  and cannot change the work that is done. The masons are all using the same bricks, after all. But it does change the context in which that work is pursued.

It changes how work feels as nothing else can. And without it the concept of achievement is a pale and empty abstraction.

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Vision: The Emotional Connection

Much is said today about the role of vision in the workplace. Unfortunately vision is often approached primarily as a tool to be wielded or tactic to be deployed – a mechanistic and relatively superficial understanding unsuited to the task of  capturing employees’ imagination, enthusiasm, dedication, and commitment.

A client once took us on a tour of an 800-person plant manufacturing transmission assemblies for 18-wheel tractor-trailers. The machinery was huge and awe-inspiringly complex. But the manager’s remarks focused on a newly-adopted manufacturing process and the voluminous documentation it required.

Coming across a worker filling out some of theses charts and spreadsheets, the manager asked why so much paperwork necessary. The man spoke of things like ensuring quality and increasing efficiency, and the manager agreed. But there was more than that, he said.

“The reason we track these statistics,” he said, “the real reason we do all this stuff is that someday some trucker is going to be tearing through the panhandle of Texas at 2:30 in the morning, trying his best to make a delivery on time.

“He’s going to be tired and alone, and whether he knows it or not, he will be trusting us to give him a transmission that won’t break down. He’ll be depending on us for his livelihood and his safety, and we can’t let him down. He’s the reason we fill out these forms every day—because it’s our duty to take care of him and everyone like him.”

These words, far from a mere motivational speech or rousing pep talk, sought to invest an otherwise mundane task with purpose and significance. With just a handful of sentences, this manager offered an alternative – and and far more compelling – vision of one employees work, by placing routine duties within a context of profound meaning.

The importance of this should not be underestimated, for we all seek meaning in life. We all want to further something larger than ourselves. And when given the chance to do so, we will work committedly to advance an endeavor that we see as being of personal significance to ourselves.

Unfortunatley meaning is in distressingly short supply in many workplaces. And while employees with no sense of purpose in their work may well still follow directions, will still lift what they are told to lift and file what they are told to file, few will go much beyond that. Few will spontaneously give of themselves in those ways that make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

Warren Bennis once that wrote that without meaning, labor is time stolen from us. And no one wants to work for someone who is stealing from them. Leaders that hope to create a workforce filled with investment, motivation, and ownership, then, have no choice but to find ways to suffuse their workplace with meaning.

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Capturing the Human Spirit

Many employees are cynical, apathetic, disillusioned with their work. This is a sad truth of the workplace.

What is also true, though, is that none of us want to feel that way about our employment. We would all rather be motivated than unmotivated, rather be fired up about the work we do than indifferent.

Given that human beings have a fundamental desire to be engaged at the level of the spirit, the question leaders must ask themselves is not Why aren’t these employees engaged? but What elements of my workplace culture are preventing them from being engaged?

We have previously explored how leaders can inadvertently create the very behaviors —hostility, insubordination, apathy, indifference, etc. — they most dislike in employees, through the unintended consequences of their own leadership actions and choices.

But I’m not a tyrant, many might think to themselves. I’m not a bully. I’m one of the nice guys.

This is likely true. We have found they majority of the leaders we have worked with to be sincere and well-meaning people.

Yet it is undeniable that leaders may praise employees’ accomplishments, ask after their families, and remember their birthdays, yet still hold mental models — say, that that employees will not work unless supplied with external reasons to do so — that generate counterproductive and even destructive workplace dynamics.

The crux of the issue, it can be seen, lies in the below-the-line mental models that leaders hold. Do they — do you, as a leader – believe that the average human being can find work a source of satisfaction? That most employees have the capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems? That even frontline employees seek a sense of meaning and accomplishment in their work?

Such questions are far from mere abstractions, for fundamental views about human nature determine, in large part, the culture any leader builds in his or her human system. And that, in turn, shapes the behaviors and choices of the employees functioning in that culture.

The base of knowledge about human behavior in the workplace is not new. And if truth be told, few of its principles are particularly surprising or revolutionary. Just as studies on diet and health regularly emphasize a few well-known concepts—eat more fruits and vegetables, get more exercise— findings on the health and effectiveness of human interactions have been remarkably consistent.

Rather than seeking new answers, then, it seems we would be far better served by holding the mirror up to our beliefs, and considering how closely they match the accumulated body of proven and dependable principles.

Put simply, reflecting on what we truly believe—our theories-in-use, not just our espoused theories—is imperative in capturing the human spirit and developing the human potential of those around us.

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Creating Motivation? Or Creating Conditions Conducive to Motivation?

Countless leaders have wrestled with the issues of motivation. How do I motivate this or that employee? How do I increase collective motivation throughout my office, department, or organization?

These questions address important workplace realities. But are the foundations of such inquiry sound? Do leaders actually motivate employees at all?

Research has suggested that a great deal workplace motivation stems from a relatively small number of sources – things like opportunities for achievement and recognition, the enjoyment of work itself, opportunities for increased responsibility, and personal growth and development.

Such studies further suggest that true motivation is not something that can be given from the outside. A sense of achievement in work well done, the satisfaction of increasing responsibility, the pleasure of doing an enjoyed task—none of these can leaders give directly to employees, like they would a raise or a benefit package.

Rather motivation comes only from within each individual person. Leaders can create the conditions in which motivation flourishes, but they never create motivation directly.

Put simply, leaders don’t motivate employees. They create cultures and environments in which employees’ inherent motivation manifests itself.

What does this mean in practice?

It means that people have good reasons for wanting to work. We want to contribute to meaningful goals. We want to be thanked and appreciated for the efforts we contribute. We want our capacities are fully utilized.

This intrinsic drive seems to lie at the heart of W. Edward Deming’s comment that excellence is 100% voluntary. His words suggest that rarely, if ever, will managers be able to “motivate” employees to excellence through the brute force of sanctions and rewards.

What they can do is create conditions in which employees are inspired to voluntarily give their all to a project or goal they believe in.

Viewing employees as unwilling partners in need of motivation, leaders place themselves in the position of continually “pushing the rope” toward excellence.

But with an understanding of the basic human desire for meaningful endeavor, leaders can embark on the far more exciting prospect of unleashing and harnessing the human spirit already filling their workplace.

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