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?


Dare to dream?

Environmentalists have been especially ineffective in creating any shared vision on the world they are working towards

Donella Meadows


Next week I’m facilitating a visioning day for folk from various Quaker sustainability projects . In dialogue with my contact, Sunniva, at Quaker Peace and Social Witness we decided to frame the day as a ‘visioning’ rather than a strategy day. For me this was about giving the group explicit permission to think creatively, to welcome intuition and emotion, and tap into their shared values.

However I’m hearing the language of strategy coming back at me from the participants as I ask them what they hope to get from the day. In response, I went as far as to sketch out an alternative, strategy focused agenda for the day. It seemed sensible to check out this disconnect. Sunniva sent me Donella Meadows‘ paper Envisioning for a Sustainable World to support her decision to vision rather than strategise. If I’m honest I groaned a little at seeing the academic format of the paper, but soon found myself absorbed and then inspired. I’ll leave it to Donella to say the rest:

    I have been honing my capacity to envision. I rarely start a garden, a book, a conference, or an organization, without formally envisioning how I want it to come out – what I really want, not what I am willing to settle for. I go to a quiet place, shut down my rational mind, and develop a vision. I present the vision to others, who correct and refine it help it to evolve. I write out vision statements. When I lose my way, I go back to those statements. Sometimes I still feel silly doing all this. I was raised in a skeptical culture, after all, and worse, I was trained as a scientist, with all “silly irrationality” drummed out of me. But I keep practicing vision, because my life works better when I do. Here are some things I have learned about the way vision works:

– Envisioning is not a left-brain activity, it doesn’t come from the part of me that does rational analysis. It comes from whatever part of me informs my values, my conscience, my sense of morality. Call it heart, call it soul, whatever is the source of vision, it is not rational mind.

– I have to keep filtering out any remnants of past disappointments, any tinge of negativism, any analysis of “reality.” I have to work actively to focus on what I want, not what I expect.

– I have stopped challenging myself, or anyone else who puts forth a vision, with the responsibility of laying out a plan for how to get there. A vision should be judged by its clarity of values, not by the clarity of its implementation path.

– In my experience that path is NEVER clear at first. It only reveals itself, step by step, as I walk along it. It often surprises me, because my computer and mental models are inadequate to the complexities and possibilities of the world. Holding to the vision and being flexible about the path is the only way to find the path.

– Vision is not rational, BUT rational mind can and must inform vision. I can envision climbing a tall tree and flying off from its top, and I might very much want to do that, but that vision is not consistent with the laws of the universe; it is not responsible. I can envision the end of hunger, but careful modeling tells me that it can’t be accomplished tomorrow; it will take time. I use every rational tool at my disposal not to weaken the basic values behind my vision, but to shape it into a responsible vision that acknowledges, but doesn’t get crushed by, the physical constraints of the world….

– One essential tool for making vision responsible is sharing it with others and incorporating their visions. Only shared vision can be responsible. Hitler was indeed a visionary, but his vision was not shared by the Jews or the Gypsies or most of the peoples of Europe. It was an immoral, insane vision.

– Staying in touch with vision prevents me from being seduced by cheap substitutes. If what I really want is self-esteem, I will not pretend to achieve it by buying a fancy car. If I want human happiness, I will not settle for GNP. I want serenity, but I will not take drugs. I want permanent prosperity, not unsustainable growth.

– Vision has an astonishing power to open the mind to possibilities I would never see in a mood of cynicism. Vision widens my choices, shows me creative new directions. It helps me see good-news stories, pockets of reality that could be seeds of a wider vision. I see what I should support; I get ideas for action.

– People who carry responsible vision become, in some sense I can’t explain, charismatic. They communicate differently from cynical people. Even if the vision isn’t overtly expressed, it’s there and it’s noticeable. Inversely, many progressive, dedicated, “realistic” people unconsciously communicate their underlying hopelessness. Being around them is a “downer;” being around visionaries is a constant inspiration.

– I have rarely achieved the full expression of any of my visions, but I have learned not to be discouraged by that. I get much further with a vision than without it, and I know I’m going the right direction. I can take comfort in my progress, even while I continue to bear the tension of knowing I’m not there yet.

I am a practical person. I think of myself as relentlessly realistic. I want to create change in the world, not visions in my head. I am constantly amazed, but increasingly convinced, that envisioning is a tool for producing results. Olympic athletes use it to make the difference between the superior performance their trained bodies can achieve and the outstanding performance their inspired vision can achieve. Corporate executives take formal classes in vision. All great leaders have been visionaries. Even the scientific, systems-analyst side of me has to admit that we can hardly achieve a desirable, sustainable world, if we can’t even picture what it will be like….

….Of course having a vision isn’t enough. Of course it’s only the first step toward any goal. The grandest vision will get nowhere without proper information and models and implementation (and resources, labor, capital, time, and money). There are great difficulties in all these steps of social change and much work to do. I’m by no means indicating that we all become nothing but visionaries. I think what I’m advocating is simply that we make the world safe for vision.

That means, at the least, that we take a mutual vow not to go around squashing vision — our own, or anyone else’s, and especially not that of young people. Of course having a vision isn’t enough. Of course it’s only the first step toward any goal. The grandest vision will get nowhere without proper information and models and implementation (and resources, labor, capital, time, and money). There are great difficulties in all these steps of social change and much work to do. I’m by no means indicating that we all become nothing but visionaries. I think what I’m advocating is simply that we make the world safe for vision. That means, at the least, that we take a mutual vow not to go around squashing vision — our own, or anyone else’s, and especially not that of young people.

Mapping the activist experience

Take a look at Chris Johnston’s latest post: A journey through time, space and Leed’s global justice movement. It would be easy to be put off by the Leeds-specific title and the early mention of the-less-than-thrilling-named Customer Journey Mapping, but hang in there.

There’s something here for anyone trying to start, sustain or facilitate activism. Chris’s Activist Journey Map is well worth replicating for your group, network or organisation. Possibly a useful variation on other mapping tools for group’s strategy or visioning, or for designing support for networks of activists?

Cycling to Palestine

3 months cycling to Palestine, engaging with communities along the way, especially communities of resistance. Sharing stories, creating a story. Using performance and art, perhaps building up an international troupe of performers. All the while highlighting the struggles and resistance of the Palestinian people. Sound exciting?

On Sunday I was working with a group of activists planning just such a venture. The conversation had started during an outreach cycle ride to the Rossport Solidarity Camp this summer. The cyclists were moved by Israeli forces attack on the peace flotilla bound for Gaza to deviate from their planned focus and stop to take action in solidarity. The idea of an outreach ride to Palestine was almost inevitable.

We met to begin to explore a vision for the project. It’s a real pleasure to play a useful role at the start of projects such as these. Another pleasure was the absence of pressure to have it all done and dusted in a day. This was an exploratory day and decisions could be deferred to the next meeting.

I used several of the tools used with the Bridges group and added a spectrum line discussion to provoke thinking on some of the major issues behind the purpose of the ride. Once again using a simulated media interview to invite reflection and analysis of a project worked a treat. I’d been asked for a creative day that avoided a ‘big circle’ meeting.  We possibly went too far the other way, as there was an evaluation comment that “more plenary discussion would have been appreciated”


The group was tired and a little worse for wear from the Just Do It fundraiser the night before, which impacted on the later activities. But with regular energisers we got there.

In terms of what worked well on the day, the group said:

  • we got to know each other on a personal level and had opportunities to relate as humans – not something that most meetings provide the chance to do
  • the spectrum line exercise was good, leading to useful discussions
  • the media interview activity was good especially for putting ourselves into other roles
  • having an external, neutral, facilitator worked really well
  • the energisers actually energised
  • we were clearer at the end than at the start of the day (!) – it was good and exciting shared space

Inevitably there were things that worked less well

  • we could have found time to work out a strategy for people who want to support the ride from here in the UK, but not actually join the ride
  • the ‘splurge’ (as the ideastorming somehow became known!) and 6 thinking hats sessions were frustrating because I wanted to talk as a full group
  • I would have liked to hear everyone’s ‘who we are’ conversation
  • the timing of the day wasn’t great – it’s Sunday and some of us are hung over

3 months in the saddle ought to sort out those hangovers…

Building Bridges

Monday saw me on an early train to Wellington, Shropshire to facilitate Bridge’s staff and trustee ‘Visioning’ away day. It was a fairly short notice piece of work for me, but made much more possible by the clear brief and draft agenda Bridges’ co-ordinator provided. The real pleasure about this job was that using participatory tools wasn’t an option, it was right there in the brief.

Bridges themselves work with schools and community groups using participatory methods like Philosophical Enquiry (or P4C as it’s sometimes known). We didn’t use P4C on the day, though it’s something I’ll be exploring for the future. However we did use a host of other participatory methods, including de Bono’s six thinking hats. I also took the idea of local radio interviews, which I recently used in a strategy training and tweaked it to help the group explore differing stakeholder perspectives of their work. Add to that a highly entertaining session called History of the Future and we were ensured an energetic day together.

Green hat thinking in progress

Sadly the end point was, as is often the case, too ambitious. I don’t believe in creating unrealistic expectations, so I levelled with the group right at the start – whilst we’d try our best I doubted we’d get as far as they were hoping to. I’d already had that conversation with Davina, the co-ordinator.

I’ve written before about the challenges of undertaking work like this in just one day. It’s a source of endless frustration to me that fantastic organisations like Bridges simply don’t have the resources to be able to give these processes the time they really take and they’re left using other means to finish off processes and finalise important decisions. This is something I’ll be thinking about more. If I come to any conclusions I’ll share them here. If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

One very basic piece of learning from this, for me, is that it’s far more intelligent to plan the process for finalising the work before the day begins. Towards the end of the day, when everyone’s brain is beginning to ache from such concentrated creative exertion, is not the best time to have to improvise a system for collaborating on creating near-final draft documents, taking the final decisions, and communicating the outcomes to the group. But that feels a little like working on the assumption of failure. Bridges will be using online collaborative tools.

The final stages of the vision in their raw form - a "visual mess"

Even though we didn’t reach the end point the group were hoping for, they enjoyed and valued the day. The were very complimentary about the choice of tools we used across the day, and appreciated the rare opportunity to engage with each other and get to hear each other’s viewpoints. The negatives were mainly to do with time: “not enough hours in the day”. There was a comment about the collecting of thoughts on what Bridges overarching vision might be – that the board with post-it notes on it was a “visual mess”. Fair point – had we had longer I would have moved on to break the emerging themes up more cleanly. We had to stop and move on to ensure a system was in place to finalise the work. However, it’s still not appropriate for the final mental ‘snapshot’ to be a confusing one, especially when tidying it up is the work of minutes. The last word from Davina:

Everyone in the office is very pleased with how the day went, myself included. One of our Trustees was very quick to praise your skills – and is often quick to find fault

More strategy resources – useful tools and techniques

The folk at The Change Agency have added some new resources to the strategy pages of their website. Some of the new resources are listed and linked below, but you might like to check out the pages if you haven’t recently.

  • Mechanisms of change (233k pdf) – An exercise which explores the different ways social movements can bring about change and how these different mechanisms can help when selecting tactics.
  • Vision gallery (229k pdf) – A tool for envisioning specific features of the kind of society participants would like to create, and facilitating development of a common vision and shared values.
  • Tactics relay (259k pdf) – An activity to assist participants to think critically and creatively about potential tactics and to reinforce social change frameworks.

I also raided a corporate website recently for some visioning  tools: scroll down for History of the Future, which I’ve since used with reasonable success and will definitely use again.

Want to read more? See our previous post on strategy resources