Strategic Vision for Adaptive Change

Learn from the people 
Plan with the people 
Begin with what they have 
Build on what they know 
Of the best leaders 
When the task is accomplished 
The people will remark 
We have done it ourselves.
― Lao Tzu

It is important to distinguish between a strategic vision and tactical goals. Tactical goals are short-term, aligned to the vision, but with much more concrete action steps and outcomes. A strategic vision is a long-term and over-arching concept of what the organization will be like in the future. To implement a strategic vision, the leader must have their own vision of what the organization will be. If the leader wants the organization to survive beyond their tenure, the vision must include helping the people determine a collective vision that may or may not be the same as the leader’s. This is the key to sustainable organizational leadership.

A sustainable vision needs to be defined in terms broad enough for people to understand and believe in, but vague enough so each person can find a personalized specificity in it. Each person has a purpose for being in the organization; their “why”. Vision must be a shared “why”. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl shows how a purpose greater than oneself, is a fundamental need for human beings. A shared purpose is a powerful driver.

There is great danger for an organization in the narcissism of small differences. The people must be able to join and shape the vision, too much specificity too early in the process, will drive people away; not enough specificity and few will join. In the end, the leader has to be willing for her vision of the organization to be the one that must die in order for the people’s vision to thrive. Moses does not get to the promised land, his reward lies elsewhere.

A visual to help understand the ideas behind the development and attainment of an organization’s vision might be a statistical scattergram. To begin with, a leader must study where people fall on this imaginary scattergram. The leader does that by getting out, listening and learning from the people as Lao Tzu directed. Once a sense of the collective purpose of the group is learned, including how factors outside the group is influencing work inside the group, the leader finds a “line of best fit” and the vision is crafted around that line. For purposes of this example, assume the line is drawn from the bottom left to the top right.

We now have a scattergram blob around a nascent vision (i.e. line of best fit) and the leader must begin to motivate each person on the scattergram toward the distant, vaguely familiar point in the distance. At this point, the people should be able to recognize in the purpose of the organization, a confirmation of their personal vision. This provides one of the three pillars of motivation, purpose, or relatedness, for those that do.

As people begin to work toward the distant, vaguely familiar point, they will begin to fill in part of the vision themselves through their work. It is critical that the leader recognize the importance of allowing the people to have some say in the work necessary to get to the strategic goal. It is in allowing enough choice for people while holding the “line of best fit” that leaders establish the second pillar of motivation: autonomy.

The final pillar of motivation is the chance for people to engage in tasks that move them toward the distant, vaguely familiar point that are challenging. The leader’s task is to ensure the people are able to make progress in their work. One particularly important way the leader does this is by culling outliers in the scattergram. This may occur by counseling them to adjust their vision, adjusting their task, finding creative ways for them to aid in the direction of the vision, or by counseling them out of the organization. In the end, leaders that tolerate outliers weaken and confuse the people’s vision and make it more difficult for the people, particularly if the outlier is in a supervisory position. People’s happiness at work is intimately tied to whether or not they feel they are making progress on their goals.

As the work progresses, the distribution of the scattergram should begin to regress to the line of best fit and the organization’s purpose should narrow and become clearer to all; defined by everyone around the vision. This clearer vision will probably be a little different than the original vision the leader described at first, but it will survive the leader’s departure because it was the people’s vision revealed to them by the work of the leader.