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.