A vision provides a goal and direction to travel.

A vision provides a goal and direction to travel.

John P. Kotter’s book, Leading Change, established why change in organizations can fail and the forces that shape the changes when they are successful. The two sets of opposing forces he identifies in the first two chapters are used to define and illuminate his famous eight-stage model for change. The first stage of the model is establishing a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency provides the energy and rational for any large, long-term change program. Once a sense of urgency has been established, the second stage in the eight-stage model for change is the establishment of a guiding coalition. If a sense of urgency provides energy to drive change, a guiding coalition provides the power for making change happen. Once we identify or establish a sense of urgency and the power to make change happen we then have to wrestle establishing a vision and strategy. A vision represents a picture of a state of being at some point in the future. A vision acts as an anchor that establishes the goal of the transformation. A strategy defines the high level path to that future.

Kotter begins the first chapter by reviewing changes driven by different leadership styles that include authoritarian, micromanagement and visionary. Change driven by authoritarian decree (do it because I said so) and micromanagement (I will tell you step-by-step how to get from point A to point B and validate compliance to my instructions) often fail to break through the status quo. In fact, demanding change tends to generate resistance and passive aggressive behavior due to the lack of buy-in from those involved in the change. Couple the lack of buy-in with the incredible level of effort needed to force people to change and then to monitor that change, and scalability problems will surface. Neither authoritarian- nor micromanagement-driven techniques are efficient for responding to dynamic, large scale changes. Change driven by vision overcomes these issues by providing the direction and the rational for why the organization should strive together toward the future defined by the vision.

Effective visions are not easy to craft. Visions are important for three reasons. An effective vision will provide clarity of direction. A clear direction provides everyone making or guiding the change with a clearer set of parameters to make decisions. When lean and Agile teams crisply define the goals of a sprint or Agile release train (SAFe), they are using the same technique to break through the clutter and focus the decision making process on achieving the their goal. Secondly, visions are important because they provide hope by describing a feasible outcome. A vision of what is perceived as a feasible outcome provides a belief that the pain of change be overcome. Finally, a vision provides alignment. Alignment keeps people moving in a common direction.

Kotter defines six characteristics of an effective vision.

  1. Imaginable – The people who consume the vision must be able to paint a rational picture in their mind of what the world will be like if the vision is attained.
  2. Desirable – The vision appeal to the long-term interests of those being asked to change.
  3. Feasible – The vision has to be attainable.
  4. Focused – The vision provide enough clarity and alignment to guide organizational decisions.
  5. Flexible – The vision must provide enough direction to guide but not enough to restrict individual initiative.
  6. Communicable – The vision must be consumable and understandable to everyone involved in the change process. Kotter further suggests that if a vision can’t be explained in five minutes it has failed the test of communicable.

In the third stage of the eight-stage model for change, Kotter drills deeply into the rationale and the definition of an effective vision.  Kotter defines strategy as the logic for how the vision will be attained.  An effectively developed vision makes the processes of defining the path (strategy) for attaining vision far less contentious. The attributes of an effective vision including being imaginable, feasible and focused provide enough of a set of constraints to begin the process of defining how the vision can be achieved.

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