I come across a number of senior executive leaders who admit to having problems with what the current President George Bush senior described, with some discomfort, as the “vision thing”.
At risk of stereotyping the leadership psyche, we are often more comfortable when faced with practical problems that require “fixing”. Over the past 20 years, this mentality has been at the core of organisational planning: identify what is not working; find a solution; implement it; check if it has fixed the problem. We then ended up with lots of tasks which put right individual things but did not necessarily combine to move the system forward.
Yet such an approach has much to commend it. Change can be represented as a technical enterprise which can be controlled and managed. It gives the impression of productive activity. And it often results in a concrete product, which can be admired and shared.
Perhaps our engineering and scientific heritage has reinforced our belief that the solution to a problem can be found through reliance on technical mastery and hard work. The technical model has much to commend it, for many discrete tasks suit a linear, logical and controlled environment. Such an approach is sometimes referred to as a “waterfall model” of development, which maintains that one should move to the next phase only when the preceding one is perfected.
Phases of development in the waterfall model are discrete, and there is no jumping back and forth or overlap between them. In many ways, organisational change has depended on this approach, which has been bureaucratic, slow and inflexible.
Yet, there is an alternative strategy which promotes a more flexible, creative and effective approach to change and can be used in conjunction with the waterfall model. As the waterfall approach takes its example from the scientific world, so the alternative takes its example from the artistic world.
The model I have in mind is that of the sculptor. Sculptors will often start with a vision but, as they commence their task and interact with their chosen medium, their vision is modified and changed. This is sometimes known as an “iterative” process. Progress takes place through several versions, where the creator reflects on the original purpose but takes account of shifting perceptions of what is required, which might be quite different from that originally envisaged.
This contrasts greatly with the dominant approach in management where we remain locked into the “plan-driven” model, which makes no allowance for changes in the environment or the needs that originally informed the requirement for change.
So where does the “vision thing” sit between two such contrasting approaches to change? Many leaders are more comfortable when focusing on technical problems which lend themselves to a linear and sequential problem-solving approach. The complexity of education sometimes means it can only be conceptualised by being broken down into manageable chunks to be considered and improved in isolation, in the belief that they can then be reconstituted into a “better” whole.
Many elements of organisations can be changed in such a manner. But leaders must have a vision of what they are seeking to create in partnership with their colleagues. That vision should be clear, but it should not shut out the emerging reality of the situation.
It has been my privilege to work with a number of outstanding senior executive leaders who have adopted such a creative perspective to great effect.