Bill Gearhart
Director, Information Design and Development, BMC Software, Inc

Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture…Do not build up obstacles in your imagination.
— Norman Vincent Peale

Creative visualization, the act of meditating and imagining a successful future and then taking actions to make that image a reality, has been practiced for centuries by leaders of all types—religious clerics and mystics, scholars, inventors, sports figures, celebrities, and entrepreneurs. It’s a powerful technique that has proven itself effective time and time again.

We’ve all done it, whether preparing for a big interview or presentation, taking steps to change careers, or improving our health and fitness. We imagine a complete environment: our surroundings, the people we meet, and small details regarding our interactions. Creative visualization helps us practice and prepare for situations we haven’t actually experienced. And by imagining a future where we have met our goals, we create a blueprint for success.

Participating in creating an organizational vision is much the same. An organizational vision is a mental picture of a successful company, business unit, or team. It is lofty, grand, and general, as well as grounded in specific actions. When well-crafted, it is also a powerful tool for decision-making and employee satisfaction.

Why an organizational vision is important

Organizations that lack vision cede control of their future and often operate in crisis mode. In the modern business environment, change is an inevitable, rapid, and ongoing process. The problem for you as a leader is that some changes are merely fads, while others are undeniable shifts in the business model. Without the perspective afforded by time, you may have difficulty telling the difference. It’s easy to get whip-sawed by frequent re-organizations, new objectives, and different ways of measuring success. An effective vision aggregates the values, guiding principles, strategic goals, and tactical actions of an organization. As such, it is not only a blueprint for the future but a tool that sharpens focus on present activities. The juxtaposition of lofty aspirations and specific actions guides everyday decisions and lends greater meaning to short-term efforts.

In this era of conservative business practices where companies have retrenched to focus on core competencies and cost cutting, many management teams dismiss creating a vision as useless and unnecessary. Those managers contend that organizational resources would be better spent solving immediate practical problems. While there is no doubt that organizations today are stretched to capacity and beyond, the effort put into creating a compelling vision can pay immediate dividends while transforming those groups over a longer period of time.

For example, in my own experience in creating an organizational vision, one of the key attributes of that vision was to re-establish an intense customer focus. As we made frequent contact with customers, they told us that they considered installation, troubleshooting, and scenario-based information the most needed deliverables. We were able to take action on that immediately and prioritized our efforts to have the greatest short-term effect while moving us toward our longer-term goals.

The unique perspective of information development

Information Development (ID) managers have a unique set of skills that are ideally suited for creating a vision, whether for an ID group or a company at large. Those skills include seeing both the macro and micro perspectives.

The macro perspective is business related, high-level, and strategic. This view encompasses all groups, departments, and divisions that are constructing the vision and is inclusive of functional or business differences. Taking this perspective gives the ability to see shifts in marketplaces, emerging best practices for business processes, and trends in customer goals and requirements.

The micro perspective is the detailed technical skill to respond quickly to the changing environment, providing solutions before the competition. Combining the macro and micro perspectives is necessary to make the vision seem real and achievable. Without the combination, the vision can disintegrate into trite platitudes or a mundane list of tactical goals. As an ID manager, use your skills to guide discussion and ensure a seamless transition from the general to the specific.

The need for a shared vision

An effective vision is one that has shared ownership at all levels of an organization. Creating a shared vision requires other capabilities that play to the strengths of ID managers. The ability to tell a compelling story that draws upon analogies to illustrate key concepts is absolutely crucial, as is gathering input from all levels of the organization, analyzing that input, and refining the vision as necessary to ensure the proper understanding and commitment.

Understanding the power of myth

Most companies and organizations have a mythology that is woven throughout the underlying culture in the work place. That mythology usually consists of past achievements, stories of heroic efforts, anecdotes of delighted customers, and a feeling of continuity. In short, it is a collective memory that supports the organizational culture. Because of their experience communicating verbally and in writing, ID professionals have the ability to tap into the memory and extend it. A compelling vision has roots in past achievements, but it uses them as a unifying element in support of new ideas and directions rather than nostalgia.

Soliciting and accepting feedback

To be successful, the ownership of any vision must be shared by all of those who are involved in making it a reality. To get the commitment of the entire team, you must work through the process together at all levels of the organization. How many times have you heard an individual contributor utter the words “if those people at the top would just…” The vision creation process is the opportunity for those people to be heard and to participate in shaping their own future. Managing an inclusive process is extremely difficult, however, and many managers are not prepared for the chaos, frustration, and disillusionment that frequently bubbles over in comments from the participants. ID managers have experience in this area and need to guide their peers through the feedback process, working with the vision as if it were an evolving information deliverable—because it is. Take the time to iterate, and then iterate again. Ensure as many viewpoints as possible are represented. Gain concurrence as much as possible. As with any other deliverable, use your experience and expertise to determine when it’s time to lock down and move on.

The corporate vision should translate down the line from executive management to individual contributor. Each team should be able to articulate the vision of his or her department, how that vision links to both higher-level organizational visions and his or her own personal vision, and how any proposed changes will help realize that vision.

Ability to communicate and follow through

After the vision is defined, ID managers play a crucial role by continually communicating the vision and the goals and actions associated with it. The micro perspective is useful here to help answer clarifying questions and to create measurable goals that serve as interim waypoints on the journey. Course corrections will always need to be made, but with the vision serving as the North Star, the team can continue to move to its ultimate destination.