Building a Collective Vision in Times of Organisational Change
Back in March, I wrote a blog post called Five Tips to Help Your Organisation or Group Get Along Better in the Long Run, in which I listed five “roots” that can help non-profit, community, and social justice organisations grow strong enough to weather change and face conflicts that arise. This post goes into more detail about Root Two: Creating and Renewing a Collective Vision.
The process of exploring an organisational vision and affirming the shared values that inform it can be a powerful opportunity to address many sources of organisational conflict, such as lack of clarity or direction, changing work roles, fear and resentment about unwanted changes, and experiences of being marginalized or unheard. Many people who are involved in organisations as members or workers are vaguely aware of their vision, but it is rarely a conscious part of the day-to-day work. Reconnecting with an organisational vision and values can be helpful at any point, but is particularly important in times of change or unrest.
What is a vision, and why do we want it?
At its most basic, a vision is an understanding of where you are trying to go, and why. It is an organisation’s roadmap, laying out its hopes and dreams for the future.
Taking the time to develop a clear and shared vision can help an organisation to:
Focus on the things that really matter;
Identify checkpoints for reviewing progress on priorities, in order to shape direction;
Build a collective understanding of “what we’re doing, and why it’s important,” which increases clarity and motivation, and decreases disengagement and resentment;
Explore what’s important about the work you’re doing for everyone involved;
Provide a written document about the organisation’s goals that anyone can refer to in times of disagreement;
Get out of the stress of day-to-day tasks to explore the larger picture;
Share and celebrate achievements.
The roadmap that a vision offers can bring the clarity necessary to navigate conflict in ways that include all perspectives, without loosing track of important end goals.
Why are shared values important in the creation of a vision?
Whereas the vision is the roadmap to where members of an organisation want to go, the values are how they want to get there. Examples of organizational values might be collaboration, mutual respect, accessibility, inclusion, clarity, and so on. Values help set expectations as to how people interact with each other as well as with external stakeholders. They can also help to define the vision. What are the values that drive your work? Which values are shared? Which values drive people on an individual level? Values are really important motivators to resolve issues and keep things working well. Take the time to explore, define, and strengthen the common values you share. Also identify and acknowledge the values that are essential to some but not all. Make sure to check in periodically about your values and whether you are upholding them, as you continue to work together. This is especially important when new people get involved. The time spent on strengthening common values will be worth it in terms of decreased conflict, and greater satisfaction.
Benefits of an inclusive visioning process
Involving everyone in a visioning process takes time, resources, and openness to disagreement, but the creativity and collective motivation that can come out of it can be groundbreaking. When diverse perspectives are appreciated, encouraged, and seen as a source of strength, people are more likely to get things done, work together in respectful ways, feel excited about what they are doing, and be willing to lead and be led. Involvement of everyone is particularly important in times of scary change, such as funding cuts, social upheaval, new management, etc., but is also an important value to instil as a norm on a regular basis.
There are so many reasons I could list as to why inclusive visioning is important. Here are a few of them.
First, when people at all levels of an organisation feel ownership over its goals, there is more motivation to achieve them. In addition, a collective visioning process is an opportunity to understand the organisation on a deeper level. Everyone involved has the opportunity to learn what is important to people, understand the work that is being done, and explore how shifts in the organisation’s direction may impact people’s roles and responsibilities.
In addition, if people are meaningfully involved in the process and in the end they are still not on board with what the rest of the group envisions, they have a clear sign that this might not be the organisation where they will be able to achieve what they want to do. This is an opportunity for people to assess whether they want to continue to be involved, or whether it might be the time to find a place that is a better fit.
And finally, real power comes when a group of people openly discusses everyone’s different expectations and priorities, identifies what it wants to achieve as a group, and is able to find ways to work through the differences that remain to get there
There's no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
- Margaret Wheatley -
What happens when a visioning process is not inclusive?
At best, when an organisation’s vision is imposed from above, people who were not part of the process can lose their sense of connection to the work they are doing. This can lead to conflict, as people feel less motivated to address stressful interactions in ways that build stronger relationships. At worst, a lack of inclusion can lead to massive upheaval and even the dissolution of organisations, as people and groups who have been silenced or marginalized by the process look for ways to fight for their perspectives and needs to be heard. Responses can range from gossip and alliance building, to work stoppage and sabotage, to organizing for leadership change, to factions breaking off to start new organisations. While this may sometimes be necessary if perspectives are too divergent to build a collective vision, many orgs go this route before they have tried to meaningfully integrate everyone’s perspectives.
A few tips for collective visioning
If your group or organisation is small enough, the best option is to find a day or a couple of days each year when you can meet as a whole group and renew your vision and the values that guide it. Encourage people to take ownership over the process, and make sure that any barriers to participation are identified and addressed. Barriers might include when the meeting is scheduled; access to childcare, transportation, etc.; or the tendency of some to speak up frequently and others to stay silent. Make sure that you are accounting for different ways of participating. Maybe some people would prefer to write or draw rather than speak. Maybe people feel more comfortable thinking on their own first, while others explore ideas better in a group. Think about all of this ahead of time, and plan the most inclusive process you can manage.
If your organisation is too big to have one meeting with everyone, find ways to make sure that everyone has an opportunity for meaningful input throughout the process. You could break up into smaller discussion groups based on particular issues, type of work, or department. Each group can discuss their ideas, concerns, and hopes for the future, then pick someone who will represent their ideas and priorities in a larger forum, and report back for feedback. This can also happen through surveys, but only if people feel that their contribution will be meaningfully integrated into the larger process.
The important thing to remember is that if you want your visioning process to lead to better communication, greater excitement about the work of your organisation, and a healthier response to disagreement, then it’s essential to make sure that all voices are heard and integrated as you look to the future.