Strategic Visioning Process
Strategic Visioning is a process that engages an entire organizational community in integrating its best hindsight and foresight in aligned action. It was designed by David Sibbet and colleagues at The Grove Consultants International in San Francisco. In methodological terms, it blends traditional strategic planning with best practices emerging from visioning, large scale collaboration, and graphic facilitation. This blend complements the heavily analytical approaches of traditional planning with processes that engage participants in a holistic integration of their intuitive, emotional, intellectual, and physical understandings of the organization.
To understand the promise of this approach, it helps to appreciate what each of the four foundation disciplines brings to the process.
Strategic Planning -- This discipline typically relies on a comprehensive analysis of
Most large organizations build analysis of this kind built into their annual planning processes. Practices range from enormously elaborate planning processes with prescribed forms integrated into annual business planning to occasional retreats seeking new direction. Critiques of strategic planning abound, with common complaints aimed at its tendency to bias toward historical data and established understandings, its traditional top down application, and its assumption that rational processes alone can lead to success. The value of strategic planning is its emphasis on relationship with the larger industry and environment, its rigor in analyzing current positions and capabilities, and its widespread use. Its practices are great building blocks for any direction setting process.
Visioning -- Setting high level directions through visioning processes has emerged as a discipline in the last decade, fueled by increasing turbulence in the external environment. Industry shapers tend to do better than followers, especially when it's not clear what to follow. Being "visionary" is also a widely touted competency of leadership. Vision processes seek to create a compelling picture of desirable future states that often represent quantum changes from the past. They develop memorable imagery and stories about the nature and benefits of this future, and work backwards to understand the journey that could carry people to this vision. There are plenty of critics of visioning as an isolated approach. It can generate impractical and ungrounded concepts. In highly dynamic industries it may be better to work with multiple scenarios and potential future states rather than over-focus on one vision which, if wrong, could derail the organization. When visioning focuses on the generating short, exciting vision statements, it can result in banners and slogans so abstract they have little utility, especially if management doesn't truly "walk the talk". On the other hand, robust visioning processes that engage people in thorough exploration of possibilities, using different media to portray possible futures, and engaging leadership directly in the process can be extraordinarily energizing for an organization. It can help a organization break out of overly constrained view of the future and is a powerful way of tying values to action.
Large Scale Change Processes -- More and more experiments are taking place which have the goal of "getting the whole system in the room". Technologies for involving large numbers of people range from very detailed processes specifying systems for generating and sharing data between hundreds of people, to distributed processes that work ideas up and down the organization. The general purpose is to generate a shared base of assumptions and understandings about the need to change, look at alternatives available, as well as ideas for moving forward throughout the entire organizational system. The challenge of these approaches is getting buy-in from leadership for such resource intensive processes, managing the large amounts of information that can be generated, and conducting them within time frames that generate relevant action. These approaches, when conducted with commitment and careful design of the communication flows, can greatly accelerate the process of identifying, committing to, and implementing system-wide changes.
Graphic Facilitation -- Graphics are an increasingly accepted business language. For electronic communications most people understand that graphical user interfaces are much more intuitive than text-only. In meetings and other group processes more and more organizations are using very large visual working displays, imagery and metaphor, and structured graphic templates to increase participation, productivity, and systems level thinking in groups. Use of large scale, interactive visuals are limited by lack of training, availability of materials, and bias in some organizations against high participation processes. However, large scale graphics are uniquely suited for engaging groups in reviewing their organizational histories, surveying relevant environments, communicating visions and roadmaps. Such communications engage both left and right brains of users.
Our experience in working with all four technologies has convinced us that combining them offers organizations real breakthroughs in the levels of involvement, buy-in, and productivity in strategy formation processes.
THE STRATEGIC VISIONING MODEL
Pulling together the strengths of each of these processes involves some fundamental challenges:
Our efforts to work creatively with tensions has led to a process which progressively builds an ability on the part of people participating in a planning process to see the organization and its aspirations as a whole. The following diagram illustrates what we have found to be the optimal flow of attention through these concerns.
The model suggests that cycling between looking backward and forward appropriately broadens everyone's sense of the time flows effecting the whole organization, its environment, and its dynamic potential. In addition, the use of big picture, image-rich strategies that tap intuition and feelings along with more precise analysis and field work that taps thinking and sensing, systematically integrates the ways by which humans understand their past , present and future. The pattern forms an archetypal figure eight, which can be understood as the ideal overall process, as well as a pattern that repeats in a fractal way inside each major phase, steadily deepening people's understanding of new possibilities and directions.
If you take this pattern and break it into logical steps, seven phases emerge which provide a template for designing Strategic Visioning processes. These stages are numbered on the diagram above. They are:
Stage One: Preparation for the Journey
Stage Two: Exploring and Learning
Stage Three: Finding Common Ground
Stage Four: Opening to a Vision
Stage Five: Creating Strategies
Stage Six: Evolving Systems
Stage Seven: Living Your Vision in Action
STRATEGIC VISIONING IN PRACTICE
Following is a brief description of each stage in the process, what it focuses on, and some of the activities or "moves" which are associated with that phase.
Stage 1: Preparing for the Journey: Strategic Visioning is an adventure which organizations take periodically, much like special journeys. They are often triggered by crossroads decisions the organization must make in the near future. To lead and support the strategic visioning process, leadership and key stakeholders must understand that a shared understanding of its past and possible futures will catalyze more effective and aligned responses to these issues in the present. It is the day-to-day decisions and enactments that ultimately shape an organization. The moves in this initial part of the process aim at involving a stakeholders team in creating a clear process plan that engages the important parts of the organization in taking this special journey. They might include:
Stage 2: Exploring and Learning: On the model the process now moves up and back into history, engaging the intuition and feelings of participants by looking at the big picture. Large scale group graphic techniques and large group gatherings support story telling, acknowledgments, and release of the energy and learning tied up in past experience. This opening up is then grounded in more analytic exploration of core values, competencies, successes, and learning. Throughout this stage the group dialogues and documents in an exploratory mode, gathering a common base of respect and understanding for the visioning journey ahead. Common moves include:
Stage 3: Finding Common Ground: This stage in the process creates a solid platform of information and agreements which can serve as a springboard for visioning. When people know what some of the givens and boundaries are, they are freer to improvise and stretch. This seems paradoxical, but is a bit like standing in a doorway pressing your arms out, and then stepping free. Clarifying the understandings at this stage anchors and re-centers everyone in the present for a launch into visioning. It is very important to document these discussions, using such tools as group multi-voting and groupware to illustrate the extent of agreements. Useful moves here are:
Stage 4: Opening to a Vision: This stage moves up and forward in the model, reversing the direction of attention from the last phase toward the future. The little rehearsals of thinking forward in the prior stages will have built a readiness to fly free with the group imagination. The moves here should be tailored to the group and its readiness for different kinds of work. It is very important at this stage to leave evaluation behind, and open your collective arms to the voices of the intuition and deep feelings. Visions are most powerful if they represent real aspirations. They do not need to be worked out in every detail, but imagined powerfully and vividly. Productive approaches would include:
Stage 5: Creating Strategies: Strategies link the learning from the past with the vision by articulating a high level path forward. In a sense, they begin to bring the vision back down to the ground. Strategies should tell a powerful story of where to focus actions. Too many strategies undermines their impact. The moves in this part of the process begin to integrate the work of the prior stages, so be prepared to bring forward documentation and charts. Re-post key templates to create a room for whole systems thinking. Typical moves here might be:
Stage 6: Evolving Systems: For strategic visions to have impact they must be embraced by the larger organization and begin shaping the way systems and processes evolve in the organization. The most direct route is to involve as many people as possible in refining the vision and strategies, integrating the vision graphics to show progress. Another key part of this step is formal communications that let everyone know what is happening, and building feedback mechanisms. It's important during this phase to accept and honor resistance to changes. This is a sign of progress and the vision having an impact. Consider using such moves as:
Stage 7: Living Your Vision In Action: The ultimate success of a strategic visioning process is the extent to which leadership and key stakeholders actually begin living the vision day-to-day. If there is one thing that undermines a process of this sort, it is lack of genuine involvement and modeling of its significance. This is why key managers must be involved from the beginning, preferably leading the process. It is even more crucial to demonstrate commitment to the new strategic vision when it is challenged by downturns or other "bumps" in the road. People in organizations know when their leaders are serious about things. "Be" the vision to get real results. Of importance here is:
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