#6 — What's the Vision for Your Project?

In the last Coach’s Corner (#5), I said that a vision is a mental picture of the result you want to achieve--a picture so clear and strong it will help make that result real. I explained why a vision is important and then listed the qualities a vision needs to succeed.

In this article, you’ll learn how to guide a group in creating and communicating a vision for its project. The instructions assume one group all working on the same project, but you can adjust the instructions if you have people in the room working on different projects, or if you are visioning on your own.

1. Start by reviewing with the group everything they know about the problem they want to solve and the ideas they’ve got for a project that solves it.

2. Ask the group to pick a date in the future when--if the right work started right now--this project could be successfully completed and the problem solved. Make that date early enough to be a stretch--but not impossible.

Ask everyone to put themselves into the future at that date and at the place where the results of the project are most evident. They can close their eyes if that makes this process easier for them.

Remind everyone that the project has been a huge success. Ask everyone, still in the future, to spend a few minutes “seeing” that success in as much detail as they can. They can close their eyes if that makes this process easier.

Ask people to not only “see” that success but also to hear it, smell it and sense it. Start with any new or different buildings, equipment, or events. Ask everyone to describe in their minds what they see, right down to the color of people’s socks. What sounds and smells are there, such as kids laughing or hot dogs cooking? If there’s media coverage, describe it. Let the images flood in. How do the people affected by this project feel about it? How have their attitudes changed? What are they saying? What does their body language tell you? How do you feel about this success?

Ask group members to keep coming up with more and more detailed pictures, always keeping themselves in the future, looking out and looking back. They can write or draw these pictures if they wish.

3. Now split people up into pairs, and ask each person to spend three minutes describing his or her vision to a partner. They are in the future, so the only rule of this exercise is never to use the future tense, only the past or present. It’s not “We will get the mayor’s approval” but “We got the mayor’s approval.”

4. When everyone has described a vision to a partner, ask the group as a whole how many heard/saw a vision--from themselves or from their partners--that sounded as if it could really happen. You’ll get some hands up, but it won’t be unanimous.

5. Now ask everyone (still in the future) to look backward and silently reflect: before their project started, what were thethree biggest obstacles they faced—tough stuff that once stood between them and the success they've now achieved? At least one of these obstacles (maybe all three!) must be some negative or unhelpful attitude on the part of someone involved (maybe the person visioning!).

When everybody’s come up with three obstacles, ask them, again in pairs (looking back and not forward), to describe what those three obstacles were and how they overcame them. This time, take about two minutes on a side. Urge people not to slow down by trying to analyze or ponder--just let the pictures flow. The project did succeed, so obviously the obstacles were overcome. How did that happen? Just start talking. Again, the only rule is never to use the future tense, only the past or present, as in “We overcame our lack of money by involving local businesses in the project.”

People will be surprised at how many good problem-solving ideas appear. When they move on to actually plan and carry out their project, the solutions and ideas generated by this part of the exercise will prove remarkably helpful, so urge them to write them down!

6. Pull people back to the present and ask for an initial volunteer to describe his or her vision to the group, including the obstacles that had to be overcome and how they were overcome.

With almost everyone, you’ll find that the initial vision is not as sharp and compelling as it could be and that the plans to overcome obstacles are not too convincing (e.g. ”I raised all the money I needed by winning the lottery.”).

This is to be expected.

Push the person to clarify his or her vision by adding details to it (What was the color of that coat? What did that soup taste like?) Keep this up until the whole room really understands the level of clarity you are after. The clearer the vision, the more powerful it is.

When you’re satisfied that the vision presented by the volunteer on the “hot seat” is clearer, focus on the obstacles that stood in the way of success and especially on any unhelpful attitudes that blocked progress. Use role-plays to help the volunteer come up with more and more credible answers to how the obstacles were overcome. For example, you might play a local businessman who refuses to help fund the project or a politician who won’t endorse it. The volunteer must try to gain your support. As that role-play character, maintain your opposition or skepticism until the volunteer is able to convince you. Make the role-play exchanges as realistic as you can.

If/when the volunteer on the hot seat has trouble communicating a convincing vision, or a path through obstacles, ask other members of the group to help. Expect some frustration and chaos; that’s OK.

7. When the group agrees that the volunteer’s vision and the path to overcoming obstacles are compelling enough to work, write down the key components of both on a flip chart.

8. As time allows, rerun this process with several more people. Add any new components to the vision on the flip chart, and underline any components that keep coming up.

9. Start pooling all these components into a composite picture that fairly represents the vision of the whole group. Organize them into a vision statement. A short, relatively cohesive paragraph is usually enough, but there’s no word limit. If you wish, illustrate what you’ve written with drawings or photographs. Again, you are not writing goals and objectives---that comes later, when you get to the from-the-head stuff.

10. Use your vision to add details to your project. Creating a vision should have sparked some new thinking about your project, especially about what you had to do to overcome obstacles. Add these new details to whatever you had before (see Coach’s Corner #4). The list still won’t be complete, and that’s OK---you’ll add to it and refine it as you go.

11. Come up with an energizing name for your project---something that tells what the project is, conveys energy and commitment and appeals to all the people who will hear about it or be involved in it.

I’ve done this visioning exercise hundreds of times, and I can’t count the number of real and successful projects that have sprung from it. But if you’re still skeptical, practice on smaller, private projects first--little things you want to happen in your own life at home or at the office, for example. Go through the process above. You’ll gain confidence that it works. I guarantee you that a strong vision will consistently raise the odds of your success on any kind of project.

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