Having spent the first 5 Lessons considering how to pin down evidence, effects and causes it’s time now to leave the operational end and go back to the top of the anatomy chart – the head and the brain – and ask whether there is any vision in your organisation? The standard textbook model is clear on this – without a vision there is no direction of travel and no one in the organisation can know what the future holds for them. Few organisations maintain a clear vision so the evidence based manager should expect to have to work with a default position of ‘no vision’ at all.
Those leaders that are truly visionary possess an extremely rare combination of traits, abilities and courage and are not necessarily going to want to share their first mover advantage with anyone they don’t trust. Even if the leader does make their vision known they are leaving themselves open to criticism if they are proved wrong or fail to live up to it. This all makes the textbooks on strategic planning look totally naïve – which many are. In the absence of vision gut feel and intuition will predominate; the very antithesis of evidence based management. That is why the evidence based manager has to do their utmost to check out whether there is any chance of a meaningful vision or not.
Checking the vision provides a solid basis for employee motivation.
Whenever I teach HR strategy I still insist we start with the strategic framework but almost immediately, in the same breath, remind the class that the real world does not lend itself to such a straightforward process. The lesson is not that they should ignore the framework but rather expect to have to make an extra special effort to make it work. So having already highlighted some obvious reasons why any leader would want to keep their visionary cards close to their chest we now need to remind them of the equally good reasons for displaying their hand openly.
Leadership – we tend to follow those who seem to be heading in a direction we find exciting or potentially beneficial to us.
Values – are encapsulated by the vision and they are the most powerful motor for human behaviour (but also, conversely, the biggest brake if employees feel their most deeply rooted values are being ignored or subverted)
Engagement – we can only really expect engagement when a clear purpose is evident
Focus and effectiveness – a vision constantly informs us about whether our behaviour and actions are appropriate and well targeted
Efficiency – moving in too many different directions at once is inefficient
Esprit de corps – we like to be clear about what game we are playing and whether we are on the right team with similarly-minded colleagues
From an evidence-based HR point of view the advantages of a declared vision should far outweigh the possible disadvantages. Nevertheless, when a genuinely held vision is clearly expressed it is as likely to split the organisation down the middle as it is to galvanise it. But then that is the whole point – you cannot hope to unleash the potential of people who don’t buy into its chosen purpose. This inherent conundrum of vision, the fact that it can equally leash or unleash people, hit me right between the eyes back in 2005 when I worked with the Ministry of Defence (UK) and asked them what their vision was – the answer?
Immediately one can choose to take a totally cynical view of such a statement or be totally inspired by it, depending on the particular context at a particular time. In 2005 we were 2 years into the Iraq conflict and all MOD personnel had to decide whether they were just doing their duty or acting with the highest possible motives. There is, of course, one other stance that they could adopt though – indifference and disengagement. Even I had to make up my own mind whose side I was on – no one can just ignore this question – choosing apathy is still a choice – there is no escaping this very personal dilemma.
So have you tested your organisation’s vision yet? Is the vision of tobacco companies to cause as many premature deaths as they can? Is the vision of oil companies to find a viable alternative sooner rather than later? Do banks accept that they should provide the most stable financial system possible? These might all be moral questions but our only concern here is how people who work for these corporations respond. Even the little coffee shop on the corner could have a vision to replace the nearest Starbucks. This vision thing is that important, it really matters on a personal level and the evidence-based manager knows that.
So go and ask for any document that explains the vision and don’t be sidetracked by a Mission statement or a strategy document (both the subject of later Lessons in this series). If no such document exists then write down what you think the vision might be and how you see your role fitting in with it and then present it to your boss. If you get the distinct impression that this, very reasonable, line of enquiry is about as welcome as a cold coffee enema, and likely to be a career-limiting move, then you have already answered your own question. You might then decide your organisation doesn’t have much of a future or maybe just one you don’t want any part of?
For personal development linked to this topic visit the Consummate Professional Series