What's Your Vision For Change?

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Making change happen is like any other goal. If you don't know clearly enough where you are going, and why you want to go there chances are you'll a) never get there or b) go somewhere else and wonder what happened.

Defining a clear Vision for the change you want to effect is critical. And often it's the thing we bypass - thinking we've done it, mistaking other elements of the change strategy for our Vision (the financial business case, for example), kidding ourselves that this is 'not that kind of change'. 

It's critical for a variety of reasons. Firstly, fleshing out your Vision clearly is central to building the right plan. Strategy is as much about knowing what you won't do, as what you will do. How will you make decisions along the way to making your change happen, if you haven't defined the Vision and Purpose for change well enough?

Second. It's really easy to get superficial buy-in to superficial change objectives. Let's take one that's in the news a lot: workplace equality, inclusion and diversity. Saying 'We want to be a more equal workplace' is admirable, and unlikely to be challenged. But, as many organisations find as they chart these rocky waters, different people have different ideas about what this looks like, there is disagreement about which initiatives will get them there and the goal itself isn't specific or tangible enough to be put up against other more specific or tangible goals that may seem to contradict it ('meet our 3rd quarter financial targets' for example). To make change happen you need to build a coalition of people who understand, buy into and champion that change. You can't do this without a really clear Vision for what it is and why. It surfaces objections, clarifies intent and crystallises purpose. 

People are meaning-making animals. Ever since we developed a neocortex we've been a species that needs to understand what and know why.  We see this after tragedies - 'It makes no sense', 'I just don't understand why this happened'. Our brains are built to keep us safe, and safe means being able to make sense out of our environment. If we want people to engage with a change they need to be able to make sense of it. If you haven't been clear enough about why you're doing this and what the future will look like, don't be surprised if people ignore, defy, resist or oppose your change. 

So, as Simon Sinek says, let's start with 'Why?'. What's the reason you are doing what you are doing? If the sole reason you are doing this is money I need you to go and have a long think. Either a) no, it isn't, there's a genuine higher purpose here connected to the organisation's higher purpose - even if that is just survival. Or  b) there really is no organisational higher purpose other than to make money, in which case don't be surprised if engaging and mobilising your people to drive success always feels like an uphill struggle. I can't help you. 

Let's assume you have identified a clear higher purpose. In the example above it might be "We want a business that reflects and delights our customers, and harnesses the full potential of our people to innovate and create every day". That would be why diversity and inclusion are so important to you. 

(I'm going to go off on a side tangent here. This is where lots of businesses and D&I practitioners fall down - they get tangled up in proving the ROI of diversity and inclusion, rather than tying it back to clear organisational purpose. Research has shown that people engage much more when businesses state the purpose of a diversity strategy as 'because this is the right thing to do' than 'because it will make us more profitable'.)

From that 'why', you have the clues to your 'what'. The vision of the future. This approach owes a lot to the world of positive psychology, coaching and appreciative enquiry. All three areas are rooted strongly in the concept that working towards a clear positive vision for the future is far more likely to succeed that trying to play 'whack a mole' with the wrongs of today. The goal is to make it as real and tangible as possible. What will people be doing, seeing, hearing and feeling in the future? What that is already brilliant about the organisation that will be amplified as a result of this change? What else will be added? 

You may have noticed that this is at odds with some other schools of thought in Change. Kotter would tell you you need to scare the heck out of people to get them to engage with Change. We often frame business cases for Change in the language of fear: what terrible things will happen if we don't do this? We play to the psychology of fear and stress to initiate Change, and then wonder where the creativity, innovation and buy-in go. Don't do this. Sure, be clear about why staying put isn't an option, but root your Vision for Change in a positive future.

And of course; neuroscience.  A few decades ago I lived in the US during the time that New Age was taking off. New Age practitioners (believers?) were big on the idea of visualisation. Picture really clearly what you want to achieve, repeat it, and it will come. They were ridiculed. Written off as crazy at best and dangerous as worst. Since then there have been developments in understanding the human brain and behaviour that have enabled us to better understand what it was that the New Agers had hit on. The brain, in simple terms, has no different response to imagination or reality. Think about it - maybe a vivid memory of an event has re-created the emotions from that time. Perhaps the anticipation of a meal has made your mouth water and stomach growl. Neither of those were direct experiences, yet your brain and body got to work on acting as if they were. 

My point? If you want people to change the way they behave, you need to help them envision the new future in as clear and real way as possible. They need to co-create it, own it and live it as if it were real. They need to be able to rehearse it and embody it. What is it that you think Jonny Wilkinson is doing when he pauses for what feels like a lifetime before he takes a try? He's living the experience before it happens - priming his brain and his physiology to make the thing he wants to happen happen. If you need people to behave differently in the future - and lets be frank, anyone who is trying to make change happen does - you need to paint a really clear vision of the future with them and for them. 

So, to go back to that diverse and equal workplace. What might the vision look like? A workplace where everyone can bring their whole selves to work and know that their unique talents and contributions will be valued and championed? A workplace where anyone can join or start a conversation about how we can reach our goals and be listened to? A workplace where an idea can come from anywhere and be taken seriously? A workplace where we look at all levels of the organisation and see a mixture of backgrounds, beliefs, cultures and identities? A workplace where every person trusts their colleague to champion and support them and does the same in return? An organisation whose employees are a true reflection of their customers? 

Can you start to see how much more tangible this potential Vision is than 'A more equal and diverse workplace'? If you can bring your whole self to work and value diverse talent you may need to re-examine your measures and processes around what talent looks like. If you want a workplace where anyone can start or join a conversation you need to look at who starts them now, which voices get currency, which are closed down, the culture around communication as well as the channels. Each element of this vision points you towards specific things you may or may not do to drive the change you want to make. The clues to your change strategy are in your Vision. Start there.