At best, visions provide coherence and direction. At worst they’re about as useful as nailing jelly to the mast. Depending on the context, means or motive for their creation, visions can become powerful call to arms or simply express fuzzy idealism.
Visions and the “visioning” process are effective mind tools. strong image of where you want to be closes the gap between the present and your ideal future outcome.
The technique has been put to good use enhancing health, delivering personal growth, boosting sporting performance through to providing the glue for corporate culture or focus for community cohesion. Vision statements have been skilfully spun by dictators, demagogues and simple marketing folk.
Articulate vision can provide unifying force, set ideal outcomes people can embrace, offer Holy Grail which everyone can strive for. Which is why the ability to have, communicate and instil group vision is considered vital ingredient in any effective leader’s toolkit.
At the bottom end of the scale however, vision statements are little more than slogans to galvanise some short-term activity, sell product, or grab vote – which is probably why so much scepticism clings to what American President George Bush famously referred to as “the vision thing”.
How useful would it be to have shared vision for New Zealand – an image that encompasses our ideal society, our place in the world, beliefs about ourselves and the sort of community we want to create on this remote Pacific rock? Is it even possible to formulate vision with sufficient resonance and coherence to either inform or inspire our increasingly diverse population?
The New Zealand Institute of Management recently conducted poll of 400 of its senior executive members and asked them about the need for and focus of national vision.
Leaders, it seems, invest considerable faith in the potential of clear vision to influence New Zealand’s future. But their responses also highlighted just how difficult the process of identifying and agreeing national vision might be.
More than 90 percent of the fax-poll respondents agreed that New Zealand should have “clearly articulated vision of its future”, but they were equally divided as to whether it was possible to find common ground for this.
Asked who should take lead in the process, just third of them thought that the current Government “has vision for the country” and fewer still felt they understood what that vision is.
Two thirds of the managers surveyed think it is up to the Government to provide vision statement – possibly with help from various business and community groups and/or lot of consultation.
More than 50 of the respondents believe that clear vision would have “very great” impact on our nation’s leaders’ sense of purpose and direction. Other areas where the majority of respondents believed clear vision would make either “great” or “very great” difference included strategic planning, sense of national identity, economic prosperity, social and environmental policy, and the quality/rele-vance of legislation.
The “make-a-difference” rating was more muted on issues like racial harmony and global standing. But less than 10 percent of managers thought clear vision would “make no difference” at all in these areas. Respondent generally believe that having clear vision would make difference across broad spectrum of social/economic measures.
The “additional comments” respondents were invited to make identified need for longer-term thinking – both in terms of greater stability and to give younger generations something to feed their hopes and dreams. The vision for nuclear-free country, for instance, was cited as being both readily grasped and positive unifying force for the country – though it didn’t get anything like 100 percent backing.
And leaders picked up on the fact that New Zealand does not have constitution that might serve as vision of what the country stands for.
Trying to tease out specific words or phrases that might describe what New Zealand does stand for proved more elusive. Given the choice of five words they’d like to see included in national vision, respondents cut broad alphabetical and philosophical swathe from accountability and acceptance through to wealth and welfare.
There were some reasonably coherent strands of agreement around areas such as equality, harmony, prosperity, the environment, education, honesty and innovation. Interestingly, given the sample population, the word “competitive” appeared just once. On the other hand, concept of “equity” and “fairness” cropped up regularly.
The wide range of words chosen as raw material from which to craft clear, coherent and cohesive vision would present something of challenge. As one respondent said: “A common vision will be difficult to achieve with the widely differing political and economic views in New Zealand.”
Finding the common thread
The process of finding and writing vision statement for New Zealand might not be doddle, but various people are airing some compelling arguments about why it could be worth try, including the leaders surveyed by NZIM.
Without compass point, it’s hard to get agreement on direction and impossible to measure any real progress. Traditional economic growth measures such as gross domestic product (GDP) are coming under increasing attack. Energy and investment now scatter every which way and the lack of internal cohesion leaves the country more vulnerable to passing economic fads or market fancies not to mention the wishes or whims of increasingly influential and disparate external forces.
Visioning offers some hope and help for leaders from different parties or social groups to agree on common goals, act as magnet for collaboration, create new vocabulary that reshapes perceptions and simplify decision making. That, at least, is rough summary of some of the reasons given by groups and individuals keen to promote the benefits of having shared national vision.
Malcolm Menzies, former chair of the New Zealand Futures Trust, provides good summary of the rationale for national vision and the options for its creation on website www.anewz.org.nz. “The lack of defining national vision will motivate New Zealanders and align their efforts in the pursuit of higher levels of achievement,” he writes. The Trust is an independent organisation set up to identify developments and changes affecting the lives and aspirations of New Zealanders.
Menzies suggests that creeping globalisation could mean that, culturally, vision may be the only way to differentiate nation. And in terms of effective governance “a vision-based approach may be workable alternative to the extreme approaches of centralised planning or no government at all”.
Governing under political ideologies alone has given New Zealand diet of action-reaction policy directions and, as American local body planner Steven Ames warns, communities that don’t have clear picture of where they’re headed are forced into reactive mode when hit by the forces of change – whether demographic, technological, economic or environmental.
Ames, who’s involved in pioneering US state-wide visioning process in Oregon and has spoken about the experience to local body representatives in New Zealand, says some community groups can’t think beyond the next budget. Others are caught in perpetual state of crisis management. “Just like global businesses, just like nation states, communities need strategic vision. Rather than always reacting to change, they need to make their futures happen.”
Where to start?
Menzies offers four possible approaches to developing vision:
• The great leader approach – which basically means hoping someone will emerge who can articulate vision we all support. This approach is both laissez-faire and potentially dangerous. Charismatic leaders often turn out t