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Apr 20

If you’re transforming your organisation – don’t wait for a vision before you get started

Introduction

Supporters of the Kotter viewpoint believe that having a vision for change is the holy grail a point that I most vehemently refute.  I tend to agree with Anderson and Anderson (Beyond Change Management, 2001) that for some types of change (transformational change in particular) a vision isn’t always possible.  Often trying to get a vision that is aligned across the many, often disparate parts of the organisation is an impossible task.  Very often the work of change needs to get underway before the organisation has fully reconciled its various parts with a guiding and inspirational vision.  To further make the point I have taken the characteristics as raised by Kotter (Leading Change, 1996) as to what constitutes an effective vision in order to express why it isn’t always possible to have a vision at the start of a transformational change programme.  If you are transforming your organisation to a more Agile one then pay heed, because changing to Agile in my view is a transformational change.

Why having a vision isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The vision must be imaginable:

What happens when organisations descend into chaos brought about by changes in their environment or from within the organisation itself?  There will be a time where there will be no vision because all that will be seen will be chaos; and if a vision does exist it will certainly need to evolve and change.  If we also consider for a moment that transformational change will bring about a very necessary shift in mindset, then is it fair to assume that the current mindset will not be the most appropriate one to imagine its new future?

The vision must be desirable:

Ask any employee or stakeholder of any change if they want the subsequent mindset and behavioural shifts that are required for the vision to be realised.  I would be very surprised if there was majority, even a slim one, of people who would sign up for this level of change; but often that is exactly what is required especially for a transformational change. So while the vision may be desirable (the land of flowing milk and honey) the process to get there isn’t and thus it is little about the vision that will propel people forward but instead the level of pain they are feeling.  This is why it is my belief that Kotter’s first step in his eight is the most valid: develop the sense of urgency.  This will move people quicker than a vision will because the desire of less pain is more compelling than that of  receiving pleasure.

The vision must be feasible:

Organisations spend inordinate amounts of time on feasibility projects and studies only to find that most of their change efforts still fail and often quite dramatically.  Kotter states that feasibility “comprises realistic, attainable goals” (Kotter 1996, p72).  Again I hold the notion that compelling visions are rarely realistic and attainable.  This presupposes that we know the path to be taken to achieve the vision and for transformational change this is rarely the case.

The vision must be focused:

Leading on from the last point the vision may not be clear and all we might know is that more of the same will end the demise of the organisation.  The sad fact is that this highly focused form of vision might actually be considered to be tunnel vision as expressed by Watzawick et al (Change, 1972) where leaders may often fail to see the complexities involved in the change and may settle for a more simplified vision of the reality.

The vision must be flexible:

This I totally agree with because of the very nature of change, one has to have a flexible enough vision to “allow individual initiative and alternative responses in light of changing conditions” (Kotter 1996, p72).

The vision must be communicable:

Kotter maintains that the vision must be successfully explained within 5 minutes (Kotter 1996, p72).  Again, with the wooliness around visions of a transformational nature it is unlikely that it could be successfully communicated.

In closing …

In support of what Kotter does say though is that “developing a good vision is an exercise of both head and the heart, it takes some time, it always involves a group of people, and it is tough to do well” (Kotter 1996, p79).  This in itself implies that the organisation cannot just stand still while they are waiting for a vision.  The fact of the matter is that the vision will be evolved over many iterations and will be informed by the ever changing set of realities that emerge both from within and outside of the organisation. So in short don’t hang about fine tuning and polishing a vision before getting started on the work of change; its more important to respond to the realities of our environment and the tide of change and to make some mistakes rather than wait until we have perfect thinking before we start.

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About the author

Mark Buchan

Mark is an Agile Consultant and Executive Coach who specialises in working with leadership teams when they are transforming their organisation to a more Agile way of delivery.

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