The Only Limits Are Those of Vision

This is one of the 12 Things I Believe. Visioning what you want to achieve is an important skill for a leader and one that will serve you well in your career.

I thought I would follow-up my last post about visioning, entitled The Wisdom of The Mountain with a quick story about the processionary caterpillar. They move through trees in a long procession, one leading all the others who follow with eyes half-closed and each with their head fitted against the rear of the caterpillar right in front of them.

Professor Jean-Henri Fabre, a famous French naturalist, was curious about the processionary caterpillar’s behavior and tried an experiment. He coaxed the lead caterpillar onto the rim of a large flowerpot. Through sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot. Around and around, keeping the same relentless pace and making no progress for seven days and seven nights. There was ample food available nearby, but it wasn’t directly on the circular route. Jean-Henri concluded the caterpillars would have starved had he not terminated the experiment.

The processionary caterpillars followed their instinct – habit – custom – tradition – precedent – standard operating procedure, or whatever you want to call it. They followed it blindly and would have followed it to their ultimate demise. They mistook activity for accomplishment and followership for good practice.

How many times on projects so we act like the processionary caterpillar blindly following the direction of the person with the loudest voice, most political connections or highest rank in our respective organizations? Maybe we should develop the skill to recognize when our eyes are half closed and our heads are positioned squarely against the rear of the person one-up the chain of command.

The only processionary caterpillar with a vision is the lead caterpillar. For everybody else in the chain, the scenery never changes.

It is All About The Heart

Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, writes “What do we want to create? The answer is the vision you and your [team] come together to build and share. Few forces in life and the business world are as powerful as shared vision. The overarching goal that the vision establishes brings about not just commitment; but, new ways of thinking and acting. A good vision fosters risk taking and experimentation.”

Visions speak to the heart as well as the head. And capturing the heart of your team is the best way to get their hands working on achieving your vision.

I have always believed a plan that is 100% on target and executed with 50% commitment, will always lose out to a plan that is 80% on target and executed with 100% commitment. Often the difference between winning and losing is not the accuracy or completeness of the plan. Often it can be found in the difference of passion behind execution.

Tapping into the passion of teams is what the skill of visioning is all about.

Four Visioning Tips

  • Create a picture of the future and keep it alive through constant communication with and within the team.
  • Focus on the possibilities and not the limitations of a situation.
  • Keep your team aware of and delivering against the highest impact priorities. Don’t over sweat the details.
  • Personally communicate the vision in both words and actions.

What is Your Experience?

Have you ever seen processionary caterpillar behavior in your organization? Have you experienced the power of a compelling vision? How did it make you feel? Have you ever used possibility thinking in problem solving? How did it work? What resources (blogs, books, articles, etc.) would you recommend to people interested in learning more about this subject? Share your experience and thoughts so the community can learn even more about visioning as a leadership skill.

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3 Comments so far

  1. Joan Reinhard

    March 7, 2012

    Been through quite a few planning sessions… Examining the bottom line – what is it we are trying to achieve and what has been done (or not done) in the past that kept us from accomplishing those goals. Unless you turn “the document” into an action plan with details on how to accomplish and when AND continually critique the results – the planning is all for naught.

  2. Kyle Delisle

    March 7, 2012

    We’re currently going through our strategic planning process for a three-year strategic plan. This time around, we’re trying something different. Previously, when reviewing the mission/vision and doing the SWOT and environmental scan, it was pretty much an internal process (i.e. staff and Board of Directors). What we found was that although we had a good strategic direction, there was not much support from the community, local government, and other community organizations.

    This time, we’ve had focus groups with our small business clients and businesses that aren’t our clients (to find out why they are not our clients as well), our workforce development clients, members of the city council (including mayor) and the executive directors and representatives from their Board of Directors of all the community organizations, an open session for any community members, and we’re having a session next week with the mayors and economic development directors of the surrounding communities. All these groups provide us information on whether they agree with our mission and vision and whether they think that we’re performing our mission and on the right track to accomplish our vision. As well, they also provide input into what they believe the organization’s and the community’s SWOT is (from an economic perspective) and also provide input into the environmental scan from their and their organization’s/business’ perspective. Hopefully, this will allow us to set objectives that have broad community and regional support and also make us accountable to these parties since they had input into our mission/vision/SWOT which will feed into our objectives.

    And as Joan mentioned regarding action plans, the organizational strategic objectives flow down to each division and department. Each division and department must then develop a work plan, which then also flows down to each employee. Each employee must develop a work plan for each Strategic Action Item (SAI) that has been assigned to them that shows the tasks that need to be carried out, the resources needed, the expected quarterly results, and how each task will be measured to determine if it has been successfully accomplished. These work plans then become part of the employee’s measures for their annual performance review.

  3. […] a clear vision of what you are trying to accomplish and share that vision. Don’t assume the Mayor knows about your work and its importance on the overall economic success […]

3 Responses to “The Only Limits Are Those of Vision”




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