Developing Your Organization’s Vision

When I was a CEO I was periodically asked by various leaders how they could develop a vision for their organization. This question always perplexed me, partly because for whatever reason I usually seemed to have more ideas than I could possibly pursue.

Eventually I realized that everyone is wired differently and some people are gifted at developing new horizons, even hare-brained schemes, and some are not. The folks who are “not” are, however, gifted in other ways essential to organizational development, not least among them the ability to take visions and make them happen.

So if you happen to be more of a “doer” than a “dreamer,” yet you’re in a leadership position, how do you develop a vision for your organization?

I’ve heard seminar facilitators answer this question with what sounded like a recipe for a mystical experience. But I don’t think developing a vision is as ethereal as some think. You can be as practical as you want to be and you can still identify a solid vision for your organization’s future.

Here are a few sources and resources to help you develop a vision for your organization:

Research challenges and opportunities via SWOT. “Know thyself,” so said the Ancient Greeks. Contemplate your navel. Discover your organization’s future in your own data. Identify your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and use this knowledge to craft a different tomorrow.

Tackle first things first. Every organization can be better than itself. Build better basics and save the frills and sizzle for later. Emphasize what’s doable, practical. Find ways to articulate an idealized future one step at a time. Go for the Bronze before you go for the Silver or the Gold.

Capitalize on the personal passion of the CEO. Tap the CEO’s gifts, heart, deepest desires. I once presented a half-million dollar athletics proposal to a gentleman. He caught me off guard when he said, “What’s your passion?” I thought for a moment and said “Leadership.” He said, “Then I’ll write that check for a leadership program,” and he did. People inside and outside an organization respond to leaders who believe in something that matters. Information, yes, but emotion is also key to crafting a vision.

Tap the talent of the staff, board members, clients or constituents. Who knows your organization and its possibilities better than the people already engaged? Don’t be the CEO unable to listen or take advice. You don’t have to be lonely in leadership. As a leader, your greatest joy and maybe your greatest impact upon the organization will come when you celebrate your own people’s ideas.

Identify what the leading organizations are doing, and best them. Not every worthy vision must be “new.” It could simply be “improved.” How different, really, is one comprehensive university from another? Not much. If you don’t believe me, watch their advertisements on New Year’s Day. In this scenario, your vision is more about excellence than difference.

Determine what doesn’t exist and invent it. Creativity is always in style. Bold ideas are always fresh-maybe they won’t ultimately work; only time will tell, but they’re still fresh.

Take a risk. It’s OK to be different, to launch into the unknown, to lead when others are not yet following. Yes, it’s OK to boldly go where no one has gone before. Risk aversion is not a good leadership trait. You don’t want to be reckless or irresponsible, but you don’t want to miss opportunity for fear of failure.

Develop distinctive, possibly unique attributes. This is a bit different than developing what doesn’t exist. This is about polishing your organization’s characteristics to create a niche in the marketplace. At a level of excellence, what can your organization do that’s different from what all other competitive organizations might do? It’s not as difficult as it first appears. Difference can be about nuance. Distinctiveness can be about quality, craftsmanship, appearance, service. Potential is endless.

Identify client/constituent needs. First, stop doing what’s no longer viable, no matter how long your organization’s done it. Second, start doing what’s in demand. It’s basic free enterprise economics. Fill clients’/constituents’ needs and they’ll fill your organization’s coffers.

If you lead a nonprofit, identify what major donors want to do with major dollars. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with following the money. One way the marketplace tests the worthiness of an idea is how much support it garners. Short of cutting ethical corners, run with what available major donors want to accomplish and craft your vision around it.

Rediscover the Founders’ vision. Sometimes a new vision is an old vision dusted off and recycled. The beauty of this approach when it fits is that Founders’ visions can return with immediate public comprehension, credibility, and perhaps prestige. The organization has been tossed by tempests in the marketplace and now you’re adjusting its heading to assure you arrive at the original destination. Founders’ visions don’t always stand the test of time, but when they do they’re a great way to revitalize an organization with a “new” vision for a brighter future.

Reposition the organization. Perhaps your organization has what the old commercial used to call “tired blood.” It’s been doing same ‘ol, same ‘ol for a long time and it’s lost its pizzazz. Maybe the organization has an image problem, a public perception of the organization that’s convoluted at best or simply wrong or unhealthy. You need to send a message that a new wind’s blowing. Change things, jettison old practices and establish new goals.

Relocate. Taking an organization somewhere else is not always appropriate or practical. But sometimes it is. A well-planned new address can change the entire image of an organization and open new doors to growth and success.

If you’re the CEO, you don’t have to be the all-knowing source of every good idea. You don’t have to craft your organization’s vision to be a good leader. To be a good leader you need to be open to the best ideas, no matter the source, and create a process wherein the cream rises to the top. Then you can deploy those ideas.

So how do you develop a vision? Look around you.