Out of Chaos: Visioning as a Skill

Summary: Charting a vision for an organization or team is difficult. A lack of vision or purpose can drain a team. A clear vision can bring entire organizations into alignment and bring out the best of the individuals. This post shares a powerful exercise that I learned from Susan Piedmont-Palladino of Virginia Tech while attending a Leadership Arlington program day, a wonderful leadership development program run by the Leadership Center of Excellence. I’ve used this exercise to help teams articulate their vision and I wanted to share it for your benefit too.

The Setting

“People don’t even know what we do!”

I nod my head, waiting for my client’s frustration to run its course.  

“I’m not sure I even know what we do…” the working group participant follows up with a more dejected tone.

I continue to nod my head, silently listening. We aren’t quite done yet.  

Some of the participants also nod their heads. Others pile on with their own frustrations. Others disengage and pull out their phones, finding cheap respite in Facebook or whatever. I don’t blame them.

It’s a familiar scene. A team of really sharp public servants, overworked and beat down (name your favorite government agency).  An anonymous government contractor facility, replete with off-white painted halls (or, if we’re all lucky, a nice hotel conference room or one of those newly renovated, “hip” government classrooms). A consultant and facilitator whom the team eyes skeptically (me) until that strategic partner leads them to some sort of breakthrough (hopefully also me).  

I hear this sort of dissatisfaction from my clients often. These are more than the conceptual struggles. I’m saddened by the toll it takes on the people with whom I speak. Really bright people are totally burnt out. They operate at a fraction of their potential. Their morale is tanked and I can’t imagine that these challenges are contributing to the other parts of their lives. Entire teams are disbanded. Govvies and contractors are shuffled around. Leaders are left with little more than broken promises.   

The Root Problem

This is usually when the author throws out a lifesaver to the reader. Unfortunately all I have for you is a heavy rock. It’s a heavy rock because I’ve also observed another equally troubling trend. After I’ve let these complaints settle, I ask my clients, “okay, how would you describe the mission of your team to your organization?” or “in a perfect universe, how would you like to see the mission of your organization mature?”

More often than not, these questions stun them into silence. One or two of the participants - typically the more senior leaders - have some strong thoughts but the majority simply haven’t had the time to think about it in-depth and convert their thoughts and impressions into a clear vision.

In my current job, one of the most common problems I encounter is an organization or a team that is facing an uncertain future and is trying to figure out how to adapt its current capabilities for a changing world. Oftentimes these teams are told to also remain excellent at everything else they are doing and are getting pummeled by so many competing priorities that they have to fight from falling into dissipation.

The Future of War

The Pentagon is heavily invested in dominating the future of war

The Pentagon is heavily invested in dominating the future of war

We’ve heard from partners within the Department of Defense that it has proved exceedingly difficult to facilitate conversations on the future of war. They have hired “innovation partners” to facilitate these sorts of discussions; however, these efforts often revert back to exercises meant to drive incremental improvements, which, for the record, is not a bad thing in certain situations. But when the task is to envision the future, incremental gains fall short.

Rather, our public servants in the Department of Defense have wrestled with big problems: how can the U.S. maintain its dominance across multiple domains? How can the U.S. military scale niche, elite capabilities across the entire force to deal with emerging threats? What does the future of the U.S.’s military intelligence enterprise look like? Incremental measures have their place but our public servants in the Department of Defense need help charting bold new visions.

In fact, there hasn’t been much written that links the fields of strategy and visioning with Agile and Design practices. The panacea that is innovative digital product management can fall short in this space. Left in the hands of inexperienced, myopic, or stubborn facilitators, these approaches can fall flat, leaving a trail of frustration in their wake.

“I suppose self-delusion is a gift of natural selection as well…”

“I suppose self-delusion is a gift of natural selection as well…”

A Complicated Solution

This isn’t surprising. The journey from frustration to vision is, well, complicated. (At these moments, I can’t help but think of Dr. Ford from HBO’s Westworld played by Sir Anthony Hopkins. In the first season – which, for the record, I think is the singular best season of television ever – Dr. Ford turns to his colleague and confidant and says: “The problem, Bernard, is that what you and I do is so complicated. We practice witchcraft. We speak the right words. Then we create life itself… out of chaos.”)

The reality is that creating a vision for an organization or a team is no different. Organizations and teams are complex. They are groups of individual people with unique experiences, skills, and worldviews. They have different dreams, aspirations, motives, fears, anxieties, and hopes. It is no small feat to conjure the right combination of words that bring order out of this chaos.

Yet we’ve grown accustomed to simplifying visions into platitudes.  “It is our business to innovatively leverage existing high-impact practices in order to stay competitive in tomorrow's world.” Much like Westworld, this fake vision statement is almost indistinguishable from real ones.

How Drawings Work.jpg


Recently, I found inspiration in an unexpected place. Susan Piedmont-Palladino is a professor of Architecture, Coordinator of Urban Design, and the Director of Virginia Tech’s Washington / Alexandria Architecture Center in Alexandria, Virginia. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Susan through Leadership Arlington (a fantastic program that I recommend to anyone who has the chance to check out). Her most recent work entitled How Drawings Work: A User-Friendly Theory moves us away from the platitudes on vision and forces us to think more seriously about how to approach this abstract idea.

I was quickly surprised by how relevant her writing on “architecture” was to, well, everything. To use her words:

“The architect’s primary task, then, is to get other people to do things. The action – the things that need doing – encompasses far more than simply getting the construction crew to pay attention to the drawings, although that is critical… To talk about this – how to get a group of people with diverse points of view and agendas to support something that they can’t yet see in its entirety – we have to invoke a whole category of functional linguistics to look at conditions, performatives, agency, authority, the nature of directives, and of course, the arts of persuasion in general, usually referred to as rhetoric.”

I remember the look of panic on my boss’ face when I first mentioned rhetoric in a client meeting. And, if I had to guess, I would say that those of you who have made it this far may have rolled your eyes a bit. Talk of rhetoric elicits a certain reaction. There are a lot of words involved and it probably comes off as fluffy. Again, Susan hits the nail on the head here:

“To call something rhetorical today is to dismiss it as applied excess, redundant, words for words’ sake. Rhetoric has become a synonym for verbal ornamentation, for spin, bulls**t, and therefore an object of suspicion.”

But vision, when seen through the lens of rhetoric, is really a story. And a persuasive story isn’t “innovative,” as we understand the word today; in fact, it is one of the oldest arts out there. I imagine that is why so many industry partners who espouse “innovation” are so bad at helping their clients articulate their visions. They’ve discarded the art of rhetoric because it isn’t convenient or fast or, well, innovative in today’s age.

(Side note: that’s why I joined Hard Yards. I saw a close implicit linkage between Design Thinking, Agile, and strategy. Even during my earliest exposures to Agile and Design, I realized that their best parts give life to strategy through stories, and Hard Yards was adaptable enough to bring the best parts of each together. These stories are worded in a very particular way and their component parts – when assembled well – are like the chapters of a book. Each chapter is enjoyable in its own right, but a story is best enjoyed in its entirety. But more on all of that later…)

A Practical Exercise

So we’re back to vision and rhetoric. Sounds good, right? But what does this all mean? You’re probably hoping to walk away with some sort of take away because if you wanted pontification, you could’ve read, well, Aristotle…

Leadership Arlington Class of 2019

Leadership Arlington Class of 2019

Try this: it’s a simple visioning exercise but will help you derive powerful insights (Susan did a version of this exercise called 50 Years Back/50 Years Forward for our Leadership Arlington day). In the first part of the exercise, you have your team (or participants... or fancy dinner party invitees) think back X number of years (again, Susan used 50 but we were looking at physical space and that may not be as appropriate for different organizations or teams). Ask your team to think about what parts of that past are still visible today. For example, when Susan ran this exercise for Leadership Arlington, we discussed how building heights, electrical lines, and cluttered street intersections were “relics” of the past still visible today. Have your teammates do this with regards to your particular situation, both individually and then in small groups. Then debrief with the small groups.

Next, have participants describe the current state of affairs using only factual language (i.e. no normative judgments, prescriptive offerings, or opinion). Again, have people work individually and then as a small group. You can debrief from the small groups. This will likely be one of the most interesting blocks. You’ll see how people “flavor” their descriptions either explicitly or implicitly with bias or judgment, often without even realizing it.

Finally, have participants envision what your team will look like 50 (or X) years from now. They will be anchored in the previous two exercises so they will be well positioned to offer fruitful insights. You can again do this first as individuals and then as small groups. In this instance, have the small groups compile a vision statement that they will read to the rest of the group. This will help offer the raw materials for a final vision statement for your team. You can then compile the final version on your own, have the group dot vote for the portions that they like the most, or collaborate in whatever way you choose.

The three phased approach mentioned earlier accomplishes an implicit goal: it forces everyone to use different parts of their brains and different language structures that move them out of their “business as usual” mentalities. Without knowing it, they’ve tapped into different parts of their cognition to start telling a compelling story. Where they fall short (for example, on providing factual accounts of today’s team and mission), a trained facilitator, you, and/or your teammates will jump in to help correct course. Your team will work together to craft a story using some of the deepest principles of rhetoric, which will provide the foundation for a strong vision going forward... and they won’t even have to roll their eyes with talk of Aristotle.