For decades, leaders have been advised to generate missions and visions as a way to focus and drive organizations into the future. Countless workshops and books outline the “how-tos” associated with arriving at those just-right words that will galvanize teams and deliver results.
Increasingly, however, many leaders are wondering if this vision writing exercise is still a valuable use of limited time and effort or a vestige of a more stable and predictable past. To them, I would recommend a quick review of fifth-grade English and the parts of speech. And, I would ask, ”Is vision a noun or a verb to you?”
Noun or verb
What often gets in the way of vision being a tool for guiding others toward the future is its treatment as a noun—a thing. Frequently, leaders create a vision, crossing it off their lists like too many other “one-and-done” activities. The words are printed on posters or mugs and that’s the end of the discussion, except perhaps for a little lip service. And, as a result, the vision offers little value to individuals or the organization.
But leaders who use vision as a verb see very different results. Verbs are action words, and when vision becomes a vibrant, living activity, tremendous benefits are possible. Visioning can:
- Facilitate greater alignment throughout levels of the organization
- Focus attention on what’s most important given the plethora of competing priorities facing most employees
- Guide independent decision making (which becomes increasingly important as typical spans of control increase)
- Create an emotional connection with the organization that supports enhanced engagement and retention.
Neuroscience of Vision
Advances in neuroscience shed new light on how and why vision (the verb) can be an important tool for organizations and for individuals. Evolving research offers insights for leaders who want to leverage the value of vision.
The visual nature of the brain responds to images. Painting a vivid picture of the future—and painting individuals into that picture—creates a powerful target in people’s minds.
According to Dustin Wax in “The Science of Setting Goals,” setting that vision or goal “invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it” because “a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are—setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.”
Simply engaging others in visioning creates a subtle internal dynamic that prompts them unconsciously to bridge the gap between what is and what can be.
Visioning in its verb form is a team sport, an activity that involves the active participation and engagement of everyone involved. Commitment to an inclusive vision ensures the level of buy-in and ownership required to sustain the necessary attention and effort. Co-creating a picture of the future also deepens connections (to both the vision itself and co-workers), which enables groups to more effectively address the obstacles and setbacks that will inevitably arise.
Verb-ful (versus verbal) visions also share several other characteristics. They tap into something emotional—going beyond the head to speak to the heart. They’re inspirational while at the same time specific enough to offer a clear and compelling picture of the future.
Finally, consistent with the verb-based nature of the word, the most effective visions are actionable; they invite steps forward and facilitate momentum in a prescribed direction.
But co-creating the vision is just the beginning. For visions to be useful tools, they can’t be relegated to posters and badge cards. They must become a living and breathing part of day-to-day work and interactions. Leaders can make this happen in a variety of ways:
- Storytelling. Keep people connected to what matters most with stories from customers, colleagues and beyond. Reinforce or expand employees’ thinking with anecdotes that inspire and inform their sense of vision.
- Acknowledge progress. Take a look at “Your Brain on Dopamine: The Science of Motivation.”
- Walk the talk. Demonstrate your own commitment to the vision by working each day in service of it. Let others know how your priorities and choices reinforce the future you’ve jointly outlined.
- Talk the talk. Ongoing conversation about the vision is in large part what keeps it relevant and evolving. Rather than treating it like something sacred and cast in concrete, let others know that the vision is an iterative work in progress. Revisit it frequently, allowing it to morph as conditions change.
Organizations today need vision as much as they ever did—maybe more. But it’s an active, responsive, collaborative vision—something leaders and employees do rather than something they have. And when we view it as a verb, we’ll begin to see the vast value the vision can deliver.