Implementing an Organizational Vision through Thinking In Time

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A vision is a product of imagination

By definition,  a vision is not the physical sense of sight by which we perceive shapes, colors, distance, and relative positions of objects in our immediate environment. We use the sensory perception of vision as a metaphor for the amorphous sensation of possibility that arises with certain synergies of thought. Possibilities may or may not be creative: likewise every possibility has some ratio of probability. A feature of good management is the skill of ascertaining the probability of achieving any particular possibility and taking action accordingly within a specific zone of risk. Drawing upon Dr John Kounios’ definition of creativity, cited in this New York Times article Charting Creativity: Signposts of a Hazy Territory, creative possibilities are those that involve an insight about how to restructure a situation in a non-obvious way. Organizationally speaking, these are the kinds of visions that earn the label, visionary.

Twin problems: expressing and placing the vision

As amorphous products of imagination, it can be challenging to craft language for expressing a visionary vision. To use a sailing metaphor, one has to tack against the wind toward a destination that is essentially mythical: the island isn’t there until you arrive on its shores and set foot on the ground, confirming its existence. The goal is regularly obscured by weather (fog, storms) and the route affected by the environment (tides, pirates). In order to navigate effectively in murky circumstances, there must be a clear reference point: for enterprises of human organization, providing this clarity is the job of language.

Communicating with language is not a linear process. Misunderstandings, for instance, provide empirical evidence of the non-linearity of language.  In every situation, in any culture, language use is transactional. Although it may seem like picking at hairs, there is a subtle difference between an “interaction” and a “transaction.”[1] Both terms refer to some kind of relationship, but interactions occur between entities that remain fixed and unchanging, whereas in a transaction all entities are affected and changed (to lesser or greater degrees, but always in some way). The precise effects on individuals engaging in transactionally-based vision planning cannot be predicted. This uncertainty can undermine or motivate the group’s dynamic processes.

Thinking in time: operationalizing a vision as an encounter with history

“Most people find it harder to
think about institutions than to think about individuals.”

~ Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R May (1986, p. 239)
Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers

“Placing the organization,” suggest Neustadt & May, “partly because it is the least natural of the various steps we suggest, may yield a high return in terms of questions that might otherwise be left unasked or answers left unexamined” (p. 240). It may be counterintuitive to draw upon their “mini-methods” for political crisis resolution as a guide for organizational vision design and implementation, but bear with me for a moment. The practice of thinking in time is a strategy for design. Conceiving of time as a stream frames a dialogue for collaborative teams to “get forward, as soon as possible, the questions that ought to be asked before anyone says, ‘This is what we should do,’ or ‘Here’s how to do it'” (p. 240).

“…visualizing issues in timestreams. To link conventional wisdoms of the present with past counterparts and future possibilities; to link interpretations of the past with the experiences of their interpreters, and both with their prescriptions; to link proposals for the future with the inhibitions of the present and inheritances of the past – all these mean to think relatively and in terms of time, opening one’s mind to possibilities as far back as the story’s start and to potentialities as far ahead as relevant (judged, of course, from now, hence subject to revision later). That entails seeing time as a stream. It calls for thinking of the future as emergent from the past and of the present as a channel that perhaps conveys, perhaps deflects, but cannot stop the flow. (Conveys? Deflects? In what degree? A critical concern!) Perception of time-in-flow cannot help but be encouraged by purposeful study of stretches of history, regardless of whose it is or what the focus.” (p. 246)

There are intriguing parallels among Neustadt and May’s recommendations for working with time and those of Peter Block (Flawless Consulting)[2] and Marvin Weisbord & Sandra Janoff (Keeping Difficult Situations from Becoming Difficult Groups).[3]

Neustadt & May’s mini-methods:

  1. Get the story, build timelines (when & what), ask journalist questions (where, who, how, why)
  2. Identify options for action (defined by current conditions & capabilities), consider marketing (is it preferable to return to what was before or reach to a new, more satisfactory situation?) Principally, what can be done, now? In other words, make “…judgments of the future as a product of the past affected by presumptions about the present. This playing off of future, past, and present is important work” (emphasis added, p. 237).
  3. Test/pre-evaluate: “What expectations about causes and effects makes certain options preferable to others?” (p. 238) Play “bets and odds” in terms of your own money, what would you bet on (chances to win) and what avoid (risks of losing)? Explore what would change if new evidence comes to light.
  4. Placement (still before deciding on a choice of action!): “…probing presumptions about relevant people and organizations on whose active aid success depends” (p. 238).

Flawless Consulting

Peter Block distinguishes between the manager who has direct control, and the consultant who can achieve only influence. While Newstadt and May’s model assumes several people already working collaboratively on a major issue, Block focuses on the interpersonal, professional client-consultant relationship. “Sometimes,” he explains, “it is not until after some implementation occurs that a clear picture of the real problem emerges” (p. 8). Block is assuming transactionalism and time-in-flow even though he does not state this directly.

The presumption of timeflow is more apparent in Block’s assertion that competence in the preliminary phases of planning “create the foundation for successful outcomes in the implementation stage” (p. 10). Following a path represents movement in time. “Each act that expresses trust in ourselves and belief in the validity of our own experience is always the right path to follow. Each act that is manipulative or filled with pretense is always self-destructive” (p. 11). Block emphasizes the interplay of present and future: if one behaves like this in the present, one can expect that in the future; whereas if one behaves as if then events will likely work out in such and so a manner.

Focus on structural issues that you can control

“To the extent that we treat differences as a problem to be solved rather than a reality to be managed,” explains Weisbord & Janoff, “we set ourselves up for endless diagnosis and intervention at the expense of doing the work” (p. 2). They draw upon Solomon Asch’s (1952) discovery that for one person to maintain a perception of reality which differs from the rest of the group, that individual must have a known ally. Yvonne Agazarian’s (1997) research demonstrated that one can keep a group on task by finding that ally whenever a dynamic emerges that could take a group off-course.

In Weisbord & Janoff’s experience, “…when differences cause frustration, fear, or anger, people will keep working on the task to the extent that they view the situation as normal” (p. 3).  Weisbord & Janoff learned to normalize the emotion, not the difference. Recall the adage teachers use with students: if one person has the question, others have the question. In a task-oriented group, if one person feels the feeling, other people are feeling the feeling. Shared feelings generate natural allies and healthy subgroups. Normalizing the emotional life of a group enables the exploration of a full, wholistic range of questions and concerns – and answers! – available to a group, particularly a group that wants to act as a team.

The four conditions named by Weisbord & Janoff frame their philosophy of knowing “when to just stand there.” The crucial, transactional point of oscillation is between trusting the group to work through whatever dynamics are present toward task accomplishment, and intervening because of a risk to single member whose opinion or experience is dangling in solitary space.  In Weisbord & Janoff’s experience, diverse groups are most likely to accomplish their tasks when:

(1) people are well-matched to the task,
(2) enough time is allowed for each phase,
(3) everybody really knows the group’s goal, and
(4) potential conflict which might result in flight from the task is headed off by making differences and sub-grouping functional, i.e., as ‘‘contributing to growth’ (p 8).

The need to address and re-direct dysfunctional dynamics of fight or flight from the task is an acknowledgment of the streaming flow of time. What happens in the present affects the future, just as much as what is possible in the present has been significantly pre-figured by the past.

Notice group processes: when to slow down and give attention to small details

All of us are under a lot of pressure to move quickly.  The speed of today’s society is more than inertia, there is what appears to be an inexorable acceleration. The challenge is that the balance of time is held disproportionately between individuals and institutions. Institutionalized bureaucracies remain mired in slow time while individuals increase our frenzied activity as if to compensate for the plodding wheels of systemic change. Intriguingly, in the Charting Creativity article cited above, Dr Rex Jung of The Mind Research Network explains how creativity differs from intelligence. Creativity moves more slowly through the brain, wandering along “lots of little side roads with interesting detours, and meandering little byways.” This difference in pace is a remarkable finding that distinguishes “creative thinking” from the lightning-fast-firing of neurons venerated by popular culture. Slowing down, Dr Jung suggests, “might allow for the linkage of more disparate ideas, more novelty and more creativity.”

This is the kind of creativity needed for implementing visionary visions, whether for business or for science. We need to understand, better, how teams promote creativity among each other. Building teams who know how to notice and respond to the dynamics of language use is one powerful way to harness the essential transactionalism of communication so that, together, we can learn to recognize and make conscious choices between dead-end tangents that distract us from the organizational vision and growth-enhancing sidestreams that act back to concentrate intentionality in the flow of time toward achievement.

Constant Calibrating

All along the way, the image of the vision must be kept in mind like a target in timespace. Its necessary conditions, and the steps required to achieve those conditions, must also be envisioned. These are also products of imagination – the steps have not yet been accomplished, the conditions do not yet exist. What one holds in mind – and talks about with collaborators, team-members, friends, and advisors – is the degree of fit between the current situation (as a snapshot of time-in-flow) with any of the previously-conceived steps and conditions (as the destination of time’s flow). Probably the trickiest part is maintaining equilibrium between management and control.

Management is your ability to direct the timestream of changing conditions and changeable steps along channels you anticipate will move you closer to the target. Control is the amount of force you exert against the nature of the conditions and the step tendencies of people in your system. The most effective and enjoyable teams are those in which all members contribute consciously to the transactional balancing act of management without control. A balanced team is alert to information and dynamics that effect the timeflow of implementation. Members of a balanced team share data, thoughts, and impressions openly; confirm differences that challenge previously accepted strategy; and maintain focus on a future timespace in which the organizational vision has been made real.

[1] See Mustafa Emirbayer, Manifesto for a Relational Sociology, American Journal of Sociology Vol 103, No 2, September 1997, pp. 281-317 for a detailed discussion of the differences between “substantialism” and “relationalism.”

[2] 2nd Edition, Flawless Consulting by Peter Block. 1981/2000.

[3] This article is adapted from “Principle 6: Master the Art of Subgrouping,” in Weisbord & Janoff, Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! Ten Principles for Leading Meetings that Matter. 2007.

3 thoughts on “Implementing an Organizational Vision through Thinking In Time”

  1. The sailing instructor said: “If you were by yourself you could sail this boat from here to the island by only *feeling* the wind and how it interacts with the sails… But when you have a crew to lead; then you need to have a plan, know the terminology and communicate effectively.”

  2. Sailing is such a powerful analogy, because (even with my limited experience) it lends itself as a ready metaphor for the mix of individual-level (intrapersonal) and interpersonal dynamics that need to be managed in teams.

    I recently read:

    “I do not recall the word “strategy” mentioned, at least not in a way to address it. The term “process” came up once through a question, but the answers left me puzzled if not unsatisfied, with obtuse responses, as if to avoid the issue. What was not considered, even remotely, was: i) a holistic approach … that has strategy and context aimed at engaging people through an effective process with relevant tools, and ii) [how to leverage media for the task].” (I dropped the specifics in order to generalize; the original context is “Leveraging Social Media for Enterprise, but HOW?“)

    I’m looking at another site about project management, and notice that they “categorize” project management, knowledge management, and collaboration. I understand that is useful to create distinctions and separations among activities, yet the boundaries are arbitrary – placed here or there according to an irregular blend of individual perception and institutionalized definition.

    Planning can also be too rigid, having the effect of forcing a team to conform to pre-determined boundaries. This can lead to missing the prime moment to react to changes in team dynamics and/or environmental conditions. Sometimes there are many chances and the path ultimately arrives at (either) the intended destination or a suitable alternative; sometimes, however, that missed moment alters the trajectory irrevocably, and whatever possibility was sought vanishes. Sometimes the moment simply doesn’t appear.

    I’m thinking concretely of a sailing trip in which we hoped to make it out to Block Island. The Captain did her usual expert bit of monitoring wind conditions and NOAA’s weather report, as well as the tug and drift of tide conditions, and also staying aware of anomalies that cast typical patterns into question. She marked the window of opportunity for us to make the break from shore (telling me we were in it). After some time, it was over. The necessary confluence of conditions simply didn’t happen.

    On other occasions during that same trip, the wind was such that we made remarkable progress! There’s something about learning the skill of adapt instantly to the evolution or unfolding of conditions: team members need to be able to recognize when it is time to ‘snap to’ and perform as a team, and differentiate this from periods during which the situation is slack enough that members of the team can relax a bit into more-typical individually-based modes of being.

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