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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

The Function of Vision (Part 2, The Basics)

Welcome back to The Basics. Check out the posters for vision here.

The Basics Posters - Vision
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The first function of leadership is vision. In the definition of leadership, this is "…to make a shared vision become real.” This is the end of the definition, and it is also the outcome of the group. When the vision becomes real, the group accomplishes its reason to exist. This doesn’t mean the group is done – most visions are ongoing, constantly improving or serving the next day’s customers.

Vision is the reason each of us comes to work. Vision is meaning-making. For most of us, the meaning of our job is first a paycheck and maybe partially because we take pride in being good at our work. We go to work - and do a good job when we are there - because we want to get paid so we can do fun things, and we do a good job because we don’t want to be the person who sucks at the job or makes others pick up our slack.

This is a pretty standard “leadership training” description of vision. However, while it is true, it is not complete.

A complete vision is what ReDefine calls the story of vision. This story connects each individual's efforts, activities, and outputs within the group to a meaningful, worthwhile change for the customer. This story explains to each member of the group why his or her work is valuable, as measured by the impact upon the life of the person who receives the group's product or service. The story of vision allows the meaning-making process within each member to explain his or her efforts and drive towards excellence.

The story of vision explains how individual work efforts contribute to the group’s meaningful change in the world.

When the members of the group understand and make meaning of their work in the same way, then they have a shared vision. This becomes the basis for all interactions within the group. The vision allows members to see when they are successfully working together and when they are not. In this way, vision explains what is expected of each member of the group, and it connects the members’ efforts to each other and to the combined success of the group. At its best, the meaning given by a shared vision becomes part of members’ identities and creates a community.

(As a side note, you’ll notice that vision isn’t about individual goals like going to school or supporting a family, nor is it about abstract values or ethical considerations. Those are important, but they do not satisfy the function of vision as it exists in a group. They satisfy personal visions, which are a different thing altogether.)

Leadership is responsible for providing the words that “fill in” the details of why we work. We want the members of the group to be excellent, not just showing up for a paycheck, so we have to explain the importance of the work. We have to explain why excellent work matters to the customer. We have to give the members the words that they will turn into their story as they think about the importance of their work each shift. When we do this, the members understand – in a deep way that affects their actions – how their individual tasks connect to what the group or organization does.

The process of making meaning takes place in each one of us all of the time. Therefore, our role as leaders isn’t to share vision just once. As humans, each of us deals with the small tasks of the minutes and hours of the workday, we forget or get distracted or find new words based on what is happening. Our vision is constantly being re-made. As a result, leaders need to constantly explain and demonstrate the connections between individual tasks and the meaningful, common outcome that the group makes.

Fortunately, this is not as hard as it might sound. There are a couple of tools that ReDefine uses to structure this process. I’ll run through them quickly, and then explain the first “Seeing Exercise” for vision, which is where we start developing our ability to see the function of vision in action.

First, the story of vision is made up of five factors. These factors, when put together, are the complete set of answers that we have to find and explain to allow members of the group to connect their work to the outcome of the group.

The factors are:

  • The change, or the way that the world is different based on the group’s product.

  • The worth, or the reason that this change is meaningful to our customers as human beings.

  • The possibility, or the way that the group as a whole can achieve this meaningful change.

  • Individual contributions, or the way that individual tasks fit into the possibility.

  • Our belief, or how we as leaders show that we are committed to making this change become real.

We get into the five factors of vision in detail in Redefining Leadership: A Practitioner's Guide. These five factors ensure we make the whole connection from an individual member's work to the meaningful change.

We do not have to find the words, ideas, and expressions of the story of vision by ourselves. In fact, our role as leaders is not to simply make these up. We first listen and gather words and understanding from our customers, our employees, and our own experiences. This is a collective process and is ongoing as the organization grows and changes. We synthesize the words into the story, and then we share with the group in the right times and manners to create this understanding in the brains of the group’s members. When we know where we will find the words to create a shared vision, they are easy to hear and create an effective story.

As we synthesize vision, we have to think about how the vision explains and how it inspires. Vision explains when it describes a standard of excellence. What does success look like for the group? How do the members know that their combined product is right, and therefore provides value and worth to the customer? This answer gives each member something to strive towards in the performance of their duties. By providing a common goal, the shared vision allows each member to see the connections between all of the other members. In this way, vision inspires the group to support and encourage each other, because they depend on the collective effort to accomplish excellence. Each member sees aspects of his or her identity in the group's work and becomes part of a community that works towards a single, shared goal.

We know that the group shares a vision when they talk about it. Members of the group explain their decisions and actions using the words of the story of vision. We hear the vision as the group performs the work, and we see the results in the quality of outputs, both individual and collective.

This is our goal with the function of vision: to provide the words and meaning to allow the members of the group to make sense of their work and to share that collective meaning with the group. When each member's individual meaning-making becomes aligned in this way, the function of vision supports excellence.

The first hurdle we must overcome to act upon the function of vision is to see the meaning-making process in action, within each member of the group. To practice this, start with the SEEING EXERCISE Meaning Making in the Group.

Vision provides the foundation upon which members of the group interact to accomplish their shared goal. These interactions, repeated over time, become patterns of behavior called relationships. We explore the leadership function of relationships in the next part of this series.

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