Five Participative Processes to Develop Your Vision

Here are my beliefs with respect to visioning:

  • It is more important to have a vision than a vision statement.
  • A vision is best developed through a series of reflective and generative steps (“a process”) and not by simply discussing, “What should our vision be?”
  • Ultimately it is the leader’s or leadership team’s responsibility to develop the vision.
  • A vision is nothing unless it is shared and lived by everyone in the organization (and potentially suppliers and community members too).
  • The best way to ensure a vision is shared is to engage others in the development.

Given these beliefs, the next question becomes “How do you involve stakeholders in developing a vision?”  The following ideas are drawn from my experience facilitating visioning processes for large and small groups.

To set the stage, I share the definition and purpose of a vision, and provide examples:

  • A richly imagined desired future state
  • Your hopes for what your organization will do, have and be in the future
  • A state that is significantly better than today, but more than a solution to today’s issues
  • A stretch but possible
  • Not prescriptive. There should be many ways to achieve the vision.
  • Visual – you can see and imagine it.
  • Emotionally appealing

Participants add to the discussion sharing their own examples of powerful visions.

Then participants work in small groups to develop a vision. Five processes I have found to be engaging and effective are:

  1. From Me to We

Participants write their individual vision, pair up, share and find common ground. The pairs pair up, share and find common ground. Groups of 4 pair up, share and find common ground. Continue pairing until you have 3 – 5 groups. Each group records the key vision ideas they share on a flipchart. Flipcharts are posted like a gallery. The facilitator helps the large group find the common elements across groups.

  1. A Day in the Life

Using guided imagery, the large group “time travels” to a date in the future. The facilitator asks them to imagine what is different. Participants write ideas on post it notes. In small groups, participants cluster ideas and then write a short story or paragraph, “A Day in the Life of (Organization X) in Year (Y)”. Each group shares its story. The facilitator helps the large group find the common elements across the stories.

  1. Timeline (Past, Present, Future) (inspired by the Future Search process)

The facilitator explains the timeline process where participants build a shared understanding of key events that have shaped the organization from the past, where the organization is today, and the future desired state. The facilitator posts a long timeline on the wall divided by years from the founding of the organization through the present day and extending as far as the group wishes to envision. In small groups, participants write ideas on post it notes and then place the ideas at the appropriate places on the timeline. The facilitator helps the large group identify the key elements in the past, present and future.

  1. SOAR 

SOAR is an appreciative or strengths-based approach to visioning and planning where participants identify current STRENGTHS, external OPPORTUNITIES, ASPIRATIONS (which is visioning), and then RESULTS. Small groups work together on each of these steps. The facilitator helps the large group find the common elements in each step.

  1. Collage

In small groups, participants use magazines and art materials to collectively build pictures and headlines that illustrate the desired future state. Each small group talks about their collage, and everyone listens for key words or phrases used by the presenter or evoked by the images. The facilitator helps the large group identify key phrases that are common across the groups.

All of these processes build from individual ideas, which are then clustered into vision elements, which are the foundation for writing a vision statement.

A visioning session may end when the vision elements have been identified, or with small groups drafting vision statements that honor the vision elements. The leadership team may take away the vision elements and/or draft vision statements and reach consensus on the final vision statement. Some organizations further summarize the vision statement to a motto or tagline, which can be used for marketing and branding purposes.

Participative visioning processes enable participants to see their “fingerprints” in the evolution of the vision statement. Participants are therefore more likely to understand, accept and support the vision. Participative visioning also provides a depth of data and robustness to the vision statement itself. There is no need for any leader to bear the pressure of developing a vision on his or her own.






Do you mean what I mean?

We vacationed in San Jose Del Cabo this winter. One day as we sat by the pool, an older gentleman started talking with my husband. I noticed a lady sitting and watching nearby. I went over and asked, “Is that your husband talking with my husband ?” “No”, she said, “I am his traveling companion”.

Well, that had me stumped. What exactly is a traveling companion, I wondered? We talked about other things but that interaction has haunted me, and made me think about the power of language.

Let me explain. Had she replied “Yes, that is my husband”, I would have immediately “checked off a box” in my mind, saying to myself, “Yes, husband and wife, just like Gary and me”. Instead, her precise and provocative language caused me to think and invited many questions (which I did not ask at the time).

Language has the potential to open up dialogue and at the same time, language can dull the mind. In our busy lives, language can be a form of shorthand, where we hear one word and like a magnet, the word draws all sorts of assumptions and meanings in our mind, which we do not take the time to test. How often have you been in meetings discussing “engagement”, “accountability”, “leadership”, etc. without checking whether everyone shares the same meaning?

Dave Snowden, an expert in social systems complexity, describes how he and his colleagues worked on a body of theory and practice for over two decades and named it “Cynefin” deliberately to ensure this work would not be easily dismissed as a “decision support matrix” or another “theory of change”. But do we have to go so far as to make up new words to prompt dialogue and clarification? I don’t think so.

Language in the workplace can be a minefield of misunderstandings. We can take simple steps to ensure we are aligned:
• Do not assume that you associate the same meaning to words that others do.
• Ask, “Tell me more…” to seek to understand others. And then share your perspective.
• Develop glossaries.

A spirit of inquiry will serve you well.

Why I love volunteering with TELUS

This past week, I volunteered along with 20,000 other people from across Canada for TELUS Days of Giving, themed this year as #TheGivingEffect. What might surprise you is that I resigned from TELUS almost 20 years ago but still feel tremendously proud to be a TELUS Ambassador. What surprises me is how few companies recognize the competitive advantage of maintaining positive relationships with former employees and retirees.

How does TELUS promote such loyalty and commitment? In my case,
• My resignation was handled well, and I always felt welcome to visit and reapply should I change my mind about consulting. Other companies make it clear that you are persona non grata for leaving the organization.
• TELUS makes it extremely easy to volunteer and stay connected through the TEAM TELUS Cares website and TELUS Ambassador newsletter.
• TELUS amplifies the volunteer work I do by annually matching my charitable donations and providing Dollars for Doers, financial donations to charities based on the hours I volunteer.
• TELUS lives up to its promise of “Giving where we live” with strong local chapters of volunteers and TELUS Community Boards, comprised of local leaders who direct TELUS philanthropic funding to meet local needs.
• TELUS makes me feel valued and appreciated at each volunteer event, not only with t-shirts and refreshments, but also warm welcomes and thanks.

TELUS has received many awards for Community Investment and Social Responsibility, which contribute to TELUS’s reputation as one of Canada’s most admired brands. Doing good in the communities where TELUS employees live and work is part of the TELUS culture and its brand promise – The Future is Friendly ®. Doing good in the community is one way TELUS attracts and retains its customers and employees.

Organizations who ignore or alienate former employees and retirees do so at their own peril. Organizations like TELUS are catapulting ahead, powered by the goodwill and volunteer efforts of armies of former and current team members.
group 3 TDOG

Measuring Trust

Trust is a fundamental building block for relationships within families, co-workers and communities. Trust has been called “the bandwidth of communication” – low trust resulting in constrained or no communication, and high trust characterized by open sharing of information and feelings.

For businesses, trust impacts such things as turnover, innovation and reputation. Peter Aceto, CEO of Tangerine Bank, takes an even bolder view on the importance of trust, “Forget price, products, & services. Trust is the new competitive advantage”.

Trust is an abstract, subjective concept that is linked with many other factors such as integrity, competence and dependability. As a result, trust is hard to measure. But it is critical for organizations to know where they stand in terms of trust with their employees, customers and stakeholders. Organizations want answers to questions such as “Are trust levels going up or down?”, “Where does our organization stand with respect to trust compared to other organizations?” and “What factors contribute to building trust and trustworthiness?”

The following are examples of surveys used to measure trust:

Trust within teams and organizations

Organizational Trust and Engagement Index, FranklinCovey

The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team, Patrick Lencioni

Trust trends in society

Edelman Trust Barometer

Statistics Canada Social Capital Report 2015

Unfortunately, survey results provide indicators, not measures of trust. In its white paper, How Do You Measure Trust?, FranklinCovey proposes a three-pronged approach to measuring trust:

  1. Use surveys to raise awareness of trust levels.
  2. Observe and measure the frequency of behaviours that create or destroy trust.
  3. Calculate the economic effects of trust (customer loss, fraud, etc.)

Jadding and Predictable Tensions

UnknownOne of my first facilitation experiences was co-facilitating a Jadding session in a large oil company where I was a corporate trainer. JAD stood for Joint Application Development – a fairly new process at the time that engaged the client or end user in the design and development of computer applications. It was my first taste of facilitating a process rather than delivering a training program, and I loved it.

One of the models we explored was Predictable Tensions between the priorities and interests of units and centralized corporate groups:

Unit Priorities

  Corporate Priorities
  1. Functionality
  2. Performance
  3. Cost
  4. Support
  5. Standards/Integration
  1. Standards/Integration
  2. Support
  3. Cost
  4. Performance
  5. Functionality

The model, although simplistic, struck me as the Yin and Yang required for effectiveness, opposite but complementary energies. The model helped depersonalize conflict by helping groups “walk in each other’s shoes”.   Groups could confirm or revise their priorities, using the generic list as a starting ground. But most importantly, it gave a language for groups to reach common ground.

I have used the Predictable Tensions model with:

  • Head Office and Field Groups
  • Corporate Functions like HR, Finance, IT and Communications and their internal customer groups
  • National or provincial associations and their local offices

In all cases, it has helped surface unmet expectations, provide insights about conflict, and pave the way to more effective working relationships.




Powerful Questions to Drive Change

Over a decade ago, I saw an advertisement for a workshop on Powerful Questions. That’s an odd topic, I thought. Now with hindsight, I realize the topic was ahead of its time.

What is a powerful question? Reos Partners in their Change Lab methodology use powerful questions as the catalyst for significant social innovation. A powerful question is one to which there is no answer yet. A technical question, in contrast, is one to which we do not know the answer but the answer exists. In other words, when faced with a technical question, research can provide the answer. When faced with a powerful question, we must turn to one another and engage in dialogue and discovery, through which new intelligence emerges.

Examples of powerful questions being explored now using Reos Partners’ methodology are:

  • “How can all of us ensure that all children in Calgary grow, learn and thrive by the age of 5?” being explored by The United Way in Calgary and Area’s community change initiative, Thrive by 5
  • “What will it take for Canadians to succeed in creating a good future?” explored by the Possible Canadas Project 

Powerful questions are challenging because they focus on complex, systemic issues. Often the questions are about “wicked problems”.   The Austin Center for Design defines a wicked problem as “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for many reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems”.

Forming a powerful question takes a lot of trial and error to ensure it is a “real” question, not technical, that will inspire and engage others in the search for change. However, be inspired by this wonderful quote from Albert Einstein, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Balancing Six Paradoxical Tensions

In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer outlines six paradoxical tensions that  enable powerful dialogue and learning. Palmer says the space must:

  1. Be bounded and open.
  2. Be hospitable and “charged”.
  3. Invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.
  4. Honour “little stories” of the participants, and the “big stories” of history and society.
  5. Support solitude and community.
  6. Welcome silence and speech.

The challenge for any facilitator is how to create an environment that holds these opposing energies. Here are some ways I have found to honour these paradoxes:

Establish and use groundrules.
Clarify roles and review agenda.
Practice “emerging design”. Treat agendas like accordions.
Pay attention to light, space, smell and comfort.
Make sure each person feels expected and welcome.
Create and remain in “creative tension”.
Do not rescue, protect or try to relieve.
Invite the voice of the individual
Invite the voice of the group
Respect the value of a single comment.
Support people who stand alone.
Search for themes.
Honour the language of the group.
Honour little stories
page1image39448Honour big stories
Start with the personal connection and help enrich/enlarge the stories.
Identify stories that have meaning for all.
Support Solitude
Support community
Hold no prisoners.
Acknowledge that thinking is participating.
Acknowledge comings and goings.
Acknowledge shared interests and concerns.
Welcome Silence
Welcome Speech
Allow the pregnant pause.


Encourage those who have not spoken.
Be patient with those who are not succinct and/or have contrary views.


Of course, balancing these tensions is not easy, and things can go wrong.  When that happens,

  • Be aware of your emotions and reactions to the situation.
  • Acknowledge things are not going well. The capacity to demonstrate vulnerability is key to creating the conditions for dialogue and learning.
  • Ask the group what we should do to get back on track. (Don’t fake it because you won’t make it.)
  • Call a timeout so the pattern is interrupted, people can reflect and replenish, and there is a chance for a fresh start.
Best of luck in balancing the tensions.

Too nice?

I remember in my first year of consulting being interviewed for a possible citizen engagement contract.  If hired, I would facilitate a series of citizen roundtables focused on inner city transportation.  I remember the interviewer asking me if I thought I was “too nice” to take on this tough group of adversarial stakeholders.  How do you answer that question?

If “nice” means not shouting, swearing or table thumping, then yes, I am nice.  The Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review focused attention on “The Price of Incivility”, arguing that rudeness costs organizations millions in lost employees, lost customers and lost productivity.  I see respect, inclusion and civility as foundations for my work.

If “nice” means avoiding tough issues, then I am not nice.  I know my role is to help groups head into the nerve centre of tough, complex issues, and to support them as they have frank dialogue around what must change.  They often need to break patterns of being too agreeable or too accommodating. “Confronting the brutal facts”, one of the key principles in Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great, is a necessary, not nice, part of my work.

I did get the contract, and the roundtable achieved great success.   I hope your world includes some niceness.

Large Group Facilitation


I love the challenge of designing and facilitating large group processes.  My goal is for all participants to leave feeling they can see their fingerprints in the results – that it mattered that they were there.

Over the years, I have hosted processes such as Future Search, Open Space and World Café, all of which are grounded in whole systems change.   Every large group process requires exquisite planning and preparation, and then the release of control.

Yesterday I hosted a Futures Summit with over 160 participants.  Careful planning around provocative questions, orientation for table hosts, and attention to the layout of the room were key elements to the success of the event.

I am grateful for my many years of theatre training.  I have learned to be sensitive to the shifting energy of participants, improvise when required, and to connect with people’s minds and hearts.   Large group work is facilitation, hosting and theatre, all rolled into one.

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