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04 Jan. 2018 | Comments (1)

What is Visionary Thinking?

If you ask a group of fifty leaders, how many of you consider yourselves visionary thinkers, how many hands would go up?   In our experience, not that many.   Most leaders don’t consider “being visionary” part of their skill set.   While many recognize the need to be visionary, most lack an understanding of what that means. This has resulted in a focus on formulating vision statements, rather than experiencing the visioning process.   As a Master Level Executive Coach with the MEECO Leadership Development Institute, who has worked with thousands of senior leaders across many industries, I can state with confidence that many of today’s leaders need to learn how to more fully engage their own visionary capacity, as well as those of their teams in order to tackle volatile, problematic and unknown futures.

The typical “vision statement”, used by many organizations, is very different from the process of creating shared vision.  In the first, the goal is the creation of a vision statement that can be used to represent an organization’s desired future.  Typically, engagement and alignment around the vision statement is low.  Implementation often goes unaddressed.  Visionary thinking, on the other hand, can and should be used to address all kinds organizational challenges and opportunities through the creation of a shared vision, whether it be re-designing a pediatric hospital wing to be more child-friendly, developing a new product or service, or reinvigorating an organization’s culture.

To effectively use visionary thinking, we need to move beyond purely analytical and rational thinking capabilities and activate insight, imagination, intuition, empathy, emotions and other whole brain capacities that can help us envision a desired future state in a more integrated and holistic way.   The visioning process includes “fast forwarding” the team into the future in order to imagine and explore pictures and scenes of the desired future, inquiring into what is most important in that future and aligning around the elements that are seen as most valuable.  Inevitably, the group’s shared vision is experienced as compelling, authentic and attractive, creating an implicit drive for implementation.   The vision statement itself is a by-product, not an end in and of itself. 

During our many years of supporting leaders in creating authentic visioning processes, people have often asked us, what is the difference between setting goals and creating a vision?  There are some fundamental differences that effect:

  • How we think
  • How we feel
  • The underlying assumptions that guide each approach
  • The actual results of each approach 

These differences have huge implications on many levels.  We’ll explore each dimension in order clearly delineate the differences.

Differences in how we think

Thinking in a goal-oriented manner stimulates one’s analytical and logical brain functions. Typically, goal setting leans into a more convergent thinking style at the expense of divergent thinking— thus limiting the exploration of options, innovation and creativity.  Convergent thinking is most useful in a problem solving or planning process when creative options have already been fully explored and it’s time to narrow the solutions to a few of the best. 

Working in a vision-oriented manneris best supported by a divergent approach to thinking as it allows the group to discover and explore more possible futures.  Visioning stimulates the full functioning of the brain, allowing access to mental imagery and intuitive knowledge.  The group can more easily grasp the “whole picture” and how all the pieces are inter-connected. Most of the “visioning” processes we have seen employ only convergent thinking, or at best, a brainstorming approach to divergent thinking.  Leaders must help teams fully access all of their brain capacities, including intuition, imagery, and imagination. Using divergent and convergent thinking at the right points in a planning and visioning process stimulate creativity and allow for the design of breakthrough futures.

Differences in how we feel

When we work in a goal-oriented framework, we tend to ask questions like: What do we have to do in the next two years? Or what do we have be better at?  We often come in contact with a sense of insufficiency or lack of resources.  For example, think about a time when you set a personal goal for yourself, maybe to exercise more or lose weight.  Were you excited and inspired or dutiful and determined?  For many people, personal goal setting is not very enjoyable and can even be intimidating or stress provoking.  Follow through and success rates are typically quite low.  How we feel when setting organizational goals is not much different.  Often, the goals seem to have little personal relevance.  Achieving them may or may not be motivating.  Or, while we may be committed to achieving results, our teams find it hard to feel any real excitement, passion or commitment to making them happen.  This usually makes implementation very challenging.

When we work in a vision-oriented framework, the visions that emerge are immediately inspiring because they are a result of responding to questions like—What do we want to create or What’s possible?  When we are invited to envision what we want or what we believe is most meaningful, we come in contact with that which we care most about.  We express values that are intrinsically inspiring to us at an emotional level.  Our imagination is automatically stimulated and we come into contact with our own and the teams’ creativity.  The experience is refreshing, rejuvenating and engaging.

Differences in underlying assumptions

Assumptions are the beliefs that influence our emotional reactions, our choices and our behaviors. They are the hidden software that influences our experience of life.   Often, they are unexamined and unknown to us.  We have worked with many leaders who assume that if they give a team a goal or if their team identifies a goal, it will happen.  For example, if an organization’s sales and operational leaders meet together and set a goal of achieving a certain amount of revenue through a new cross-selling initiative, the assumption is that setting the goal will be sufficient to drive results.

Experience shows this is not so.  When groups need to adapt to a lot of change in the organization, such as learning how to work in a cross-boundary manner, setting goals is rarely sufficient. In order to embed the new ways of thinking that will be necessary to activate new behaviors, more engagement is needed.  Specifically, leaders must create a shared change vision of what the desired future state should look like. 

When working in the visioning mode, the assumption is that the group needs to create something new.  They need to explore, learn, listen and co-create a change vision that they share together.  As a group, mental images and pictures of a desired future state must be discovered, explored and shared. 

Differences in results

Goals are constructed from what we know and are usually guided by what we believe we are able to do today.  As such, they limit new thinking and constrain possibilities.   This approach works for situations that don’t require any innovation or learning but usually a team needs to evolve how they are thinking about the problem, defining the problem, or being in relationship to others around the problem.   Most disruptive change requires that the team undergo a transformation in mindsets and discover something that is completely new.  Goal setting cannot provide this.

After a goal is formulated, the attention goes immediately to dividing it up into action steps.  It’s easy to shift the focus from the substance of the goal to focusing on how to reach it. Leaders are often overwhelmed by all the isolated action steps and lose sight of what the goal was and why it mattered.  Additionally, the process of dividing the goal up into steps can further isolate and polarize team members.  Without a powerful and engaging shared vision of the change, new siloes can be created or existing siloes reinforced. “Us vs. Them” continues and the new goal does not provide much help in addressing the problem.

A visioning approach is not constrained by current reality, but proactively seeks out what is possible. It encourages learning about one’s own attitudes, assumptions and behaviors and it automatically expands the capacities of each leader’s ability to contribute to the future.   Visioning stimulates the full functioning of the whole brain, including intuition and the subconscious, while looking for what’s optimal.  It works beyond the rational, the linear and the logical and offers a bigger opportunity for the team to ideate around.  It stimulates passion, engagement and the desire for action. In this way, visioning opens up the possibility for results that are far beyond what a standard goal setting process can provide.

Many of the leaders we serve struggle with how to solve perplexing problems and create meaningful visions for the future.  Through the learning and application of visionary thinking, change can be leveraged more fully and powerful and relevant organizational futures can be more easily envisioned, designed and implemented.  


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  • About the Author: Anna Pool

    Anna Pool

    Anna Pool, MCEC, is the President of Executive Savvy and a master-level certified coach with the MEECO Leadership Development Institute.  She and Marjorie Parker are the co- authors of the book, …

    Full Bio | More from Anna Pool


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  1. Lauren Patterson 0 people like this 30 Jan. 2018 05:15 PM

    Thank you for this thought-provoking article Anna. It has me thinking about new ways to work with various groups to inspire visionary thinking and unconstrained possibilities which is what we need in these challenging times.