“Vision” is one of those words that is overused in our work and the reason it is so elusive is that is is so context dependant.
You can have a vision of a full bath tub of steaming hot water. You can have a vision of making your home run on rain water alone. You can have a vision of safe drinking water for all humans.
The first is simple, short term and you have all the tools and abilities to make it happen.
The second is more complicated and you require a few experts to make it happen, but with the right people and resources, you can achieve it.
The third is not up to you. It is a complex and adaptive system. You may be motivated by a desire to see safe drinking water for all humans but you are unlikely to achieve it because it is a complex problem. Intention can make a difference here and instead of working TOWARDS a tangible vision you can work FROM an intention and guide your actions against that.
The problem comes when people want tangible outcomes from linear processes. “We need a vision of our future” can sometimes lead to work that ignores all the opportunities and threats that come up in a living and evolving system. Without good methods of understanding what is happening, what a system is inclined to do, or iterating work based on learning (in other words developmental evaluation), in my experience those with power and a mandate to accomplish something will eventually narrow the work down to mere deliverables. The vision maybe in there somewhere but the context renders it useless.
So these days when a client asks me for a vision I want to know why and whether they have the means and desire to actually achieve it, or whether they are simply calling for a conversation on “what we’re all trying to do” so that work and opportunities can be evaluated against that.
At some level, in complex systems, vision and purpose become moral centres and ethical guidelines and not targets. That seems important to me.
Thanks, Chris — this is exactly the conversation I’m currently having with a local nonprofit! It’s great to have your words to add to mine!
Good food for thought! The entire conversation/literature on complexity theories, cynefin etc is definitely pushing the boundaries of the conventional “vision” the way it is commonly defined by Senge et al. I have witnessed first hand the power of backcasting from a vision (as you point out, from future to present). One idea that to me helps me understand the different types of vision, and gives justice to the complicated vs the complex contexts, is the idea of backcasting from scenarios vs backcasting from principles.
Backcasting from scenarios is very much like the second (rain water) that you described. The scenario is specific, adds a great deal of details, and is vivid.
Backcasting from principles is like in the third one you described. Principles act as overall, general constraints that -as long as the vision is achieved within them- guide our work with the future. Later on when I learned about the Cynefin approach, they reconcile in the sense that the principles of the vision are what Snowden would call the “boundary conditions” of the vision. This also frees up creativity, and opens up the work as you say to much more than the mere deliverables. Should you be interested, I wrote a series of four blog posts on this 😉 A brief history of the future. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/brief-history-future-marco-valente
Thanks for this Chris. I have been reading about Cynefin lately and thinking about the implications for change. This post fits nicely.
Yes. Having just been involved in a door-to-door provincial political campaign, its clear to me that if political platforms were presented as aspirations that illuminate guiding principles, they would be much better received by voters who, in 2017, know that anyone who seriously propounds on “what we’re going to do,” as if future conditions were knowable, is full of it. A more realistic approach might get people less cynical about “all politicians,” and less inclined to turn off to the whole process.
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