The Function of Vision (The Basics, Pt. 2)

Updated: Aug 26

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

The Basics Posters - Vision
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The first function we start with is vision. In the definition of leadership, this is …”to turn a shared vision into reality.” This is the end of the definition, and it is also the outcome of the group. When the vision becomes real, the group is accomplishing 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, it’s first a paycheck and maybe partially because we take pride in people seeing us as good at our jobs. We go to work and do a good job 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.

This is why Redefine calls it the story of vision.

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

Again, this 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 work day, 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.

When the members of the group understand and make meaning of their work in the same way, they have a shared vision. This becomes the basis for all interactions within the group: it explains which relationships are beneficial and which 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 individual 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 the work matters for 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.

Fortunately, this is not as hard as it might sound. There are a couple 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, and we will cover them in future articles as well.

We do not have to find these ideas ourselves. In fact, our role as leaders is not to simply make these up. Rather, we first listen and gather words and understanding from our customers, our employees, and our own experiences. This is a collective process, and ongoing. We synthesize the words into a 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.

As we synthesize vision, we have to think about how the vision explains and how it inspires. Vision explains when it describes 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. In this environment, human beings achieve more than they knew was possible as individuals.

Finally, 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. 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 talk about that connection with their colleagues. When the distributed vision function becomes aligned in this way, the function aligns to support excellence.

SEEING EXERCISE: Vision (Meaning-Making in the Group)

The first challenge of vision is to seek out the words that make up the story. We do not invent these words ourselves: we find them. One of the places we find words is in the members of the group. This exercise reveals when and how the members see their work in a positive way.

  • When do the members of the group talk with pride about their work?

  • What words do they use when they tell these stories?

  • What events or circumstances trigger them to feel this pride, and which events or circumstances do they feel able to share?

  • Are these understandings related to the customer or to other members of the group?

  • How do these individual tasks connect to the successes they describe in their stories?

The goal of the exercise is to reveal the meaning that members of the group make themselves, when it is based on shared meaning and not individual factors. These moments are one of the sources of powerful versions of the story of vision, and we as leaders should incorporate these forms of meaning into our own telling of the story. When we know where to look for this meaning, we can seek out the moments when it is in front of us. This makes it easy for us to find the words to the story of vision, and in turn makes it easier for us to create a shared vision that provides identity and community to the group.

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