Magazine article The Futurist

Leading the Vision Team

Magazine article The Futurist

Leading the Vision Team

Article excerpt

Many organizations now conduct retreats for their staffs. A new form of retreat focuses on developing organizational vision.

The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace. People asked how it happened. By God, it didn't just happen! I'll tell you that!

- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Few good things in human affairs "just happen." In the majority of cases, things happen only when people dream of a better tomorrow, decide they truly want to make it happen, and then act to turn their dreams into reality. That's what vision is all about.

In my book Visionary Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 1992), I argued that, since human behavior in organizations is very much shaped by a shared vision of the future, developing and promulgating such a vision may well be "the highest calling and truest purpose of leadership." In that book, I described a systematic process that a leader could use to develop the right vision for his or her organization. But with increasing frequency, leaders are taking their staffs on "vision retreats" to develop a vision as a group process. This article will explain how and why.

What Is a Vision Retreat?

A vision is a realistic, credible, attractive future for an organization. It is a carefully formulated statement of intentions that defines a destination or future state of affairs that an individual or group finds particularly desirable. The right vision is an idea so powerful that it literally jump starts the future by calling forth the energies, talents, and resources to make things happen. A visionary leader is one who has the ability to formulate a compelling vision for the future of his or her organization, gain commitment to it, and translate that vision into reality by making the necessary organizational changes.

Many leaders have singlehandedly, or with one or two close partners, developed their own visions and successfully used them to drive decision making in their organizations. In the private sector, for example, such visionaries as Wait Disney, Bill Gates, and Ted Turner built multibillion-dollar enterprises this way. Nonprofit organizations, such as Goodwill Industries and the Getty Museum, often are established in a similar fashion. Experience has shown, however, that involving others in the visioning process directly and intensively at a meeting or "vision retreat" arranged for that purpose can realize even greater advantages.

A vision retreat is a meeting of a carefully chosen group of individuals engaged in a structured series of exercises designed to identify and assess vision alternatives for an organization. The group typically includes executives and staff professionals and may involve trusted outsiders as well. The organization's leader is almost always fully engaged in the process and is the primary customer or user of the group's conclusions. A vision retreat (or parts of the same basic approach) can also be used in a management-development program to teach potential leaders about the importance of vision and to broaden their perspectives about the future of their organizations.

Vision and Strategy

Many leaders already take their key executives on retreats to develop annual plans or long-range strategies. These meetings rarely end up with bold new ideas. People have a natural tendency to want to continue to do what they know best, especially if it worked well for them in the past. They're perfectly content to project past trends and create a "strategy" that merely assures more of the same. Futurists are continually warning managers of this peril.

A vision retreat can go a long way toward breaking the "business as usual" mindset by shining the spotlight on new possibilities and opportunities. Group discussion at such a retreat revolves around the fundamental nature and future prospects of the organization instead of personally sensitive issues, such as resource allocation or performance evaluations. …

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