Vision in Organizations

As the business unit I led at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, MN (and especially our Customer Service Center) began transformational change, people asked often about “vision”. They wanted a detailed description of what things would be like when the organization “got there.” We wanted to become faster moving, more creative, value driven, and engage employees. We wanted to enhance customer satisfaction and improve financials. I could paint a word picture of those ideas for them, but I could not be specific about details that would emerge far into the future.

I talked with them about the first settlers crossing eastern Colorado by covered wagon and seeing the outline of the Rocky Mountains in front of them. What can people know of the pioneers as they pursued their vision? They were searching for a better life, they were courageous, they believed in themselves, and they had confidence in their ability to overcome unknown obstacles. They understood that life had risk and uncertainty. Their dream was powerful, and they would not quit.

They were cooperative. Had these settlers been competitive with one another, they would not have survived. The pioneers were afraid a good part of the time and felt overwhelmed and inadequate frequently. They knew there were no guarantees of success. They made mistakes, and they suffered. Less hardy souls ridiculed them. Sometimes their leaders were selfish, cowardly, and incompetent.

The pioneers found their way as they proceeded. They planned as best they could; they took bold action; they reflected on what happened; and they adapted as they went. Some of the wagon trains succumbed to the elements and people perished. These first pioneers knew they might not have a better life for themselves; they were paving the way for future generations. Like all ventures into the unknown, the settler’s journey began with a few. Soon, more people followed. Those who went first inspired those who came later.

As our vision at the Star Tribune crystallized, not all, but enough, maybe most of our business unit employees embraced the goals of value driven leadership, self-managed work teams, skill based pay, one-stop shopping for customers, and partnership with the unions because they helped create them and did the work necessary to bring about deep change. We worked hard to create conditions where employees felt valued, involved, and informed. The vision was for all of us and future employees, for people in other organizations and industries as well as for the Star Tribune newspaper. The desire to create a better workplace for ourselves and others inspired the strongest believers and called on each person to be their best. We everyday people would help to make the world a better place. For those most engaged, our experiences together were a powerful, visceral journey.

Within 15 months of those first days when we had little but a vague sense of possibility, our work became a nationally recognized success story. Business guru Tom Peters wrote about our work, people from a variety of industries visited to observe our self-managed work teams, and we were invited to speak about self-managed teams, partnership with organized labor, and culture change at conferences around the country.

A vision is a powerful picture of the future we want to create. Few organizations create visions that involve and inspire people, bring forth courage, and evolve the status quo. Sustainable organizations create visions over and over again because the enterprise is a dynamic living system that evolves constantly. Absent continual renewal, the organization will decline and die.

4 thoughts on “Vision in Organizations

  1. I love your analogy of the early pioneers crossing the Rockies to the West. Their example, although long ago and with different technology than is currently available, has been inspirational for me as I grew up in California and benefitted from their vision and implementation. You mention cooperation as key; I agree.
    While I am not very active in the business world, the theme of cooperation guides the way I live my life in a very small cohousing community in the Canadian north. People who come to visit and see what we are creating here often ask how we accomplish our lifestyle.
    I respond: cooperation and communication and common vision. We established a set of shared values and aspire to meet them. We put ourselves into our shared tasks with the idea of giving more to the whole than we expect to receive from it as individuals. We’ve “got each others’ backs” and celebrate our successes and are continually thankful for our good fortune… very similar to the early visionary westward-travelling pioneers and the corporate movers you mention, Tom.

  2. I congratulate you on your article. How do I transform your article into my daily life? When you write articles like this, I think it would be helpful if you gave examples of how these ideas have been implemented. I am retired and I volunteer with my therapy dog. Best wishes, Margaret Eubank

  3. I was one of the “pioneers” Tom talks about and I’m happy to say that his influence on me continues to play out in my work and personal life. Prior to Tom, our work area was rich with politics and back-stabbing. I was constantly worried about what people were saying about me. But I learned that honesty, integrity, and good process had to drive all my decisions at work and at home. If I was truly finding a solution a that would save the company time and/or money, I had to speak out, regardless of who I offended. He made it safe to speak out and I re-gained my confidence and self-esteem. By the time he left the company, I was ready to stand up on a table and sing “I am WOMAN, hear me roar!”. I learned to embrace change by learning all I could about the new system or program. I learned to unravel even the most complex problems, even when it took years to do so. I’m 60 years old and still love to learn new things.

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