Discerning Visions that Inspire Great Work

Visioning retreats are intense experiences of listening, generative conversation and strategic thinking to discern what the future requires.

This listening begins before the retreat.  Association leaders can hear the voice of the member through surveys, focus groups, and written responses describing what they hope the organization can become. Leaders can gather a sense of how members perceive anticipated changes in the environment, and even note the changes they are not yet discussing but should.

Listening deeply during the retreat requires courage, candor and trust. This is especially true if the association has invited non-board members into the process; as few board meetings have these qualities, it is no less true for board members, however well they might know each other. Effective facilitation strategies to encourage deep listening are sharing personal experiences of the organization’s enduring qualities (as appreciative inquiry encourages), storytelling and purposeful play.

Generative conversations help make sense of the difficult and unresolved issues that define and constrain any preferred future an organization might seek. These can be tough, unsettled social issues like diversity and inclusion, positions and values tested in a polarized public sphere, or even conflicting opinions on how a profession or industry should evolve. There are no right or easy answers; there may be no definitive answers either. Sometimes the best leaders can do is move forward with a shared understanding of what is at stake.

In visioning, leaders use strategic thinking as they define the strategic opportunities they should pursue and the priorities for their energy and resources. Compelling visions declare what is most important to organizations, so choosing wisely is essential. Visions drive strategic plans and strategy, and act as a centering point in an uncertain world. Vision statements are words that matter a great deal.

(Note to readers: I am not describing how to create those deadly dull visions about becoming the best; they take no insight or inspiration; just steal the words from some other underwhelming organization.)  

One way to keep visions succinct and yet express the full intent of an organization’s promise to the future is to couple a brief phrase or statement with guiding principles. The association leaders in my first significant visioning project proposed using these additional words to better convey all they believed the future required of their profession. After trying this twice more, I also believe in this approach. The right set of guiding principles emerge organically from the generative conversations and strategic thinking in a visioning retreat.

Strong visions can do so much for an association and nonprofit—declare who they are or will be and promise the world will be a much better place for their efforts. They are as sacred as marriage vows when organizations are serious about living up to their vision.

A good visioning retreat or process will reflect this sense of people gathering together to do their best work on behalf of their future. Listening, generative conversation and strategic thinking are the means for discerning what that sacred vow should be.