A vision for visioning…

A week ago I spent the day with 16 staff and volunteers from 4 sustainability organisations that all share the same faith background. We came together to vision for a sustainable faith community here in the UK and possibly internationally.

Having read and blogged about Donella Meadows paper on visioning in the run up I was determined to create a space for visioning, and not just for slightly more creatively framed strategy (which is what I think a lot of visioning days offer groups). Here’s a few things that emerged from this group that seem relevant to the wider world:

Visionaries without vision?

Those of us who work on issues such as sustainability are probably viewed as visionaries in our communities, and not without good reason. We work, day-to-day, to bring a message of a more sustainable world closer to reality. Visionary stuff, surely? And yet we can struggle when asked what our vision is. My faith based group definitely didn’t find it easy to vision. I noticed that encouraged to use colour, movement, pictures, most fell back on words. Encouraged to lift their eyes to the horizon they chose detailed examples from the foreground all of which highlights the difficulty that visioning presents us with.

Visioning is was hard work for most of us and there’s a danger that the struggle leaves us feeling unfulfilled and dissatisfied. So do we need a vision for visioning? How do we support a creative and dynamic vision for the future?

Come over to the dark side

In this particular visioning, denial, fear, the bleak future and a recurring reference to the ‘dark side’ all reared their head and at moments dominated.

That we, as a community of change-makers working to support others through their own struggle for sustainability can be overwhelmed by the weight of issues like climate change is telling. That we put on a brave face and project positivity is a potential problem because it means we’re working from an inauthentic place. If we need authentic action to make genuine and lasting change (and it makes sense that we do), then do we need to stop being  positive when we’re not feeling it and do the work necessary to vision beyond the bleakness? Or do we admit that we don’t have that vision and use our skills as trainers and facilitators to work with people as peers and to find a way through the darkness to a collective vision together?

Teaching new dogs old tricks

One of the disappointments of the day for some people was that they felt that there was a lack of new thinking. What emerged for many was a restatement of the radical founding vision of their faith. This got me thinking. Isn’t this true for many groups and organisations? Isn’t the struggle not for a constant supply of new thinking but to stay true to the initial vision and articulate it in a way that’s relevant for each new generation?

Isn’t the same true of many social change organisations? By their nature they tend to start from a vision, but over time begin to drift – mission creep, institutionalisation diluting radicalism and so on. People split away and new organisations are formed, often claiming a greater connection to the original vision, and so it cycles. For many organisations this can take years. Climate Camp is a useful case study because it’s shown us this dynamic at work in just 5 years. The founders have gone from articulating a clear vision to leaving the movement in droves because they feel that the movement is no longer true to their vision. But was the founding vision articulated to each new generation of climate camper? If so was it articulated in a way that inspired. Or was it simply assumed that the vision was clear to all, and shared by all? I generalise, but there’s some learning in there somewhere for all organisations.

And as for us facilitators – do we have a clear vision? Do we need to have an inspiring vision of what visioning can offer a group and movement or is that an obstacle to their visioning? Do we need to regularly reconnect with our founding vision for a piece of work, whatever its nature (and for our work as a whole) and successfully articulate that as the meeting or workshop unfolds?

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5 thoughts on “A vision for visioning…

  1. How often do we practice this “visioning” of which you speak? Very very rarely, I would guess, so it’s unsurpising that we’re not very good at it. (And that facilitators, most of whom are human, or at least can give a passable impersonation, also struggle).

    There’s just so much internal resistance/cop in our heads. “But we have to be practical.” “There’s no point building castles in the air.” “We should be spending our time and energy on figuring out SMART goals.” “Visions are dangerous – look at [insert “left-wing” nutjob here]

    So, I guess I am saying that it just takes lots of practice. Trust, safe space, an understanding of why it matters…

    Keep at it…

  2. climate camp – i dont think the founders are leaving the organisation in droves because it has drifited from its founding vision. As I understand it they left to ensure it did not become dependent on them as founders and to ensure climate camp remains centreless and emergent (things happen as active people want them to happen).

    This is a danger with visioning. Visions are beacons not destinations. On the journey you may well decide to turn aside. Sticking to the destination may become the wrong thimg to do. Action plans derived from visioning thus straitjacket people who have invested too much and chiefs who have staked their status on delivering the vision.

    Climate Camp and ukuncut both are exmples of centreless network ‘connectives’ a new kind of cooperative organisation with facilitators but all action dependent on active individuals. Following on from Open Space ‘the rule of two feet’ i.e. people have the right to be involved or not, no guilt tripping.

    This is a fascinating change in levels of organisation enabled by social nedia networking and used by young people under 25 mainly (the facebook generation). Us oldies had better learn.

    • Bob,

      Thanks for the thoughts.

      I wouldn’t disagree that sticking to a vision (or an action plan or an individual decision, for that matter) that no longer serves the group or network is foolish and even dangerous. Nothing should be carved in stone and held up as “the truth”. However I also see dangers in not having a shared and explicit vision, precisely because visions are beacons. Visions can bring inspiration that sees us through times of darkness and despair. They can help us make decisions (does doing this move us closer to our vision?). They can stop us being distracted by seductive voices offering us ‘deals’ – one of the stages any successful movement goes through is the offer of co-option by the mainstream.

      As for climate camp? It’s good to hear a positive interpretation of the process, and no doubt for some people that is their motivation. It’s also good to hear someone articulate the ‘vision’ of how the organisations are meant to work. I don’t think that’s the full picture, however. I hear mixed motives for leaving, including talk of burnout, frustration, anger and betrayal. I also see a process that’s not living up to the picture you paint. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working towards “centreless network connectives” and it doesn’t mean they’re not possible. It’s because we believe they are possible that we’re involved in facilitating the next meeting in a series to shape the future of co-ordinated climate action here in the UK. Hope to see you there.

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  4. Been meaning to say… I don’t think vision is a group thing. It’s a heart thing… Persons who have vision can meld their visions into a shared one. But people without a vision cannot create one in a “visioning meeting.” They would be wiser to recognize that, celebrate their past, and move on. (?)

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