What is Vision?

Bob Sevier

Bob Sevier

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Have you ever tried to put together a jigsaw puzzle? If you have, you know how useful the picture on top of the box is. This picture gives you a sense of what the puzzle should look like. And without it, chances are it will take you much longer to complete the puzzle, if you complete it at all.

A well-crafted vision serves the same purpose as the puzzle box top. It is a guide, a sense of what you should look like; it is your future; your raison d’être.

Burt Nanus defines vision as “a realistic, credible, attractive future for your organization.” He goes on to say that there is no more powerful engine driving an organization toward excellence and long-range success than an attractive, worthwhile, and achievable vision of the future that is widely shared.

Karl Albrecht uses a metaphor and image of “the northbound train” to describe how important vision is to an organization. Albrecht says, “The northbound train conveys an unwavering commitment to a particular direction…The idea of a moving train also conveys a strong sense of momentum, of unstoppable, implacable movement in an unambiguous direction.”

Albrecht notes that leaders and followers must have a clear image of this northbound train and writes, “the key word is image—something that you can describe and that people can see in their mind’s eye. It is a mental picture of an enterprise, operating in an environment, performing to some criterion of excellence, and appreciated for what it contributes.”

Attributes of an inspirational vision

The jaundiced among us may not believe that a vision is capable of inspiration. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, however, argue that in cynical times, a great vision is even more important because:

  • It focuses on a better future
  • It encourages hopes and dreams
  • It appeals to common values
  • It emphasizes the strength of a unified group
  • It uses word pictures, images, and metaphors
  • It communicates enthusiasm and kindles excitement

To Kouzes and Posner’s list, I might mention that a great vision:

  • Is appropriate—consistent with mission, history, values, and culture
  • Reflects high ideals and standards of excellence
  • Is clear in purpose and direction
  • Leaves out more than it leaves in (it is all about focus)
  • Is ambitious

Note that a great vision is not about being unique or distinctive. Rather, it is about being compelling to both internal and external audiences.

Where does strategic planning fit in the conversation?

At its most basic, the purpose of the strategic plan is to help the institution achieve its vision. With this in mind, the vision becomes a litmus test for all the goals and activities that are proposed in the plan. If they don’t clearly support the vision, then they should likely be eliminated.

John Kotter, in Leading Change, believes that a strong vision must not only motivate the individual, but the organization as well. To this end, he says that an effective vision must be:

  • Imaginable: Conveys a picture of what the future will look like.
  • Desirable: Appeals to the long-term interests of employees, customers, and others who have a stake in the enterprise.
  • Feasible: Comprises realistic, attainable goals.
  • Focused: Is clear enough to provide guidance in decision-making.
  • Flexible: Is general enough to allow individual initiative and alternative responses in light of changing conditions.
  • Communicable: Is easy to communicate; can be successfully explained within five minutes.

Vision as prefix or suffix

It is interesting to me that planners (and the mountain of planning literature they generate) and practitioners (and the mountains of plans they shared with me) are fairly evenly split on where to place visioning in the strategic planning process.

Some believe that the initial vision should guide the process. Others feel that a vision should somehow emerge or at least be fine-tuned at the conclusion of the process. The more I talked to people, however, and the more I reviewed the plans with which I have been involved, the more I felt that visioning belongs early in the planning process. Let me give you some reasons why.

First, I believe that the primary role of the vision is to lead the organization. Visions should inspire and guide. If this is true, then placing the visioning after the planning process would be much like buying the road map after you have finished your trip.

Second, when coupled with your mission, the vision helps set the initial wills and will nots of planning. It helps you focus on some of the things you must do while setting other things out of bounds.

And third, a visioning process at the beginning of the planning process can be a highly useful tool for assessing the campus’ climate for change. In addition, the visioning process can also be a genuine consensus builder.

A great vision has great gravity

In a recent white paper on strategic planning. I briefly discussed the relationship between vision and gravity. I mentioned that as human beings, all of us relish the familiar; things and ideas and places that make us feel safe, valued, and comfortable. These things exert significant gravity on us. We orbit them just as the Earth orbits the sun. They give us context and they provide comfort.

A great vision, by definition, must exhibit great gravity. It must, in other words, entice us to leave the familiar and join something greater. A vision that is compelling attracts people (talented faculty and staff, students, engaged alumni, and donors) and resources (tuition dollars, donated dollars, foundation dollars, public and media attention).

Visions with gravity excite.

Visions with gravity encourage.

Visions with gravity pull us and other resources toward them.

Visions with gravity matter.

Some great visions

  • Oxfam: A just world without poverty
  • Habitat for Humanity:A world where everyone has a decent place to live
  • Toys “R” Us: Our vision is to put joy in the kids’ hearts and a smile on parents’ faces
  • IKEA: Affordable solutions for better living
  • The University of Montana – Helena College of Technology will be recognized as a responsive regional center of technical and academic education, as a partner in economic and community development, and as a diverse and accessible community of learners. UM-Helena will promote excellence in education; maintain fiscal and operational integrity; and cultivate an environment of fellowship, inclusiveness, and respect
  • The vision of Biola University is to be identified among the world’s foremost Christ-centered universities – a community abiding in truth, abounding with grace, and compelled by Christ’s love to be a relevant and redemptive voice in a changing world
  • University of Phoenix provides access to higher education opportunities that enable students to develop knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals, improve the productivity of their organizations and provide leadership and service to their communities
  • The University of San Diego is a nationally preeminent Catholic university known for educating students who are globally competent, ethical leaders working and serving in our complex and changing world
  • University of Rochester: Learn, Discover, Heal, Create — And Make the World Ever Better (this is actually their mission statement but it is enormously compelling)
  • Boonshoft School of Medicine (Wright State University): To progress as a preeminent community-based medical school that advances new models of academic excellence and community health care

Stamats visioning resources

Stamats has a number of tools to help with vision development, including:

  • Market research
  • The Stamats Institutional Values Inventory™
  • Vision development workshops
  • Vision testing

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