In my experience, executive teams almost always have a strong understanding of what they want the company to achieve, and where they want it to be in 12 to 18 months’ time. They’ve arrived at this shared vision tacitly, through dozens of meetings, research projects, consultancy reports, and powerpoint decks; the main unit of delivery in the corporate world.
This vision is then divided into a series of projects and initiatives, which are handed to individual managers to deliver, usually in the form of fixed requirements, hard deadlines, and quarterly targets. By the time these projects reach the delivery teams, they have almost always become disassociated with the vision that’s driving them.
The good, the bad, and the frustrated
Good teams will try and unpick this vision, to reassemble it in a way they understand. This can take a huge amount of time, which the organisation almost always believes is unnecessary. Bad teams will simply deliver these projects, without understanding how they fit into the broader picture. Thousands of decisions will be made along the way, and without a clear framework for making those decisions, the project will be driven in a dozen different directions.
When the project is finished, the executive team will often be left feeling frustrated as the projects took much longer than intended, and failed to meet their potential. In response, the exec team will often implement even stricter management and even more specific requirements to ensure this doesn’t happen again. But of course it always does.
The problem here is twofold. First, the executive team’s vision is almost always tacit. It’s something they understand and think is obvious because they live it every day. They assume that everybody else gets it as well. When the vision is captured and shared, it's often done through uninspiring powerpoint presentations filled with numbers and management speak. This vision is then broken down further, so by the time it reaches the teams, they only see their part of the puzzle, and lack the bigger picture.
The other part of the challenge is that the vision is often too myopic, focussing on the next quarter or financial year. To craft a really engaging vision, you need to cast 3-6 years out, and demonstrate how the work of each individual team contributes to the overall goal.
Design a solution
Solving both of these problems is relatively simple, although not always easy. It requires a shift from a command and control style approach, to one of situational awareness and command intent. This shifts decision-making to the people on the front line who are better equipped to assess the situation and deliver on the desired outcome that has been set by management. It also requires a certain amount of internal propaganda to help capture hearts and minds.
Fortunately this is something design, and especially design thinking, can help with. Designers are great at understanding complicated problems, mapping them out in a way that makes sense, and then communicating them to different stakeholder groups in an engaging and actionable way. So rather than producing dry powerpoint decks or PDF reports that will be read once and then left at the bottom of your inbox gathering dust, a rich vision can be crafted using all the tools at the designer's disposal; books, posters, magazines, comics, videos, and more.
We’ve had a lot of success using vision videos at Clearleft; rich visualisations of the products and services you expect to offer in five years time, and what the experience of using those products and services will be like. These vision videos can be backed up with more tangible assets like brand experience books, concept maps, and posters outlining the steps you need to take to reach your vision, along with the values and guidelines you’ll use to help you along the way. Even the humble and much-maligned persona can help organisations gain a better understanding of who they are serving and how they can serve them better.
As businesses move away from the traditional command and control approach to management, and towards a process of command intent, leadership teams will increasingly focus on communicating a rich vision and set of values the entire organisation can get behind. When this happens, delivery teams will be in a much better position to make decisions that align with the vision, rather than wasting energy trying to guess what managers want, and spending all their time pleasing managers, rather than delivering true business outcomes.