Posted by: mhirdyounger | February 21, 2014

Visioning as a Development Tool

Visioning is the ability to think beyond the status quo and to imagine the possible.

Over the last year, I have come to realize how important visioning is to development. Our team now uses visioning in all of our work, with our own personal and professional development, within the team and with our partners. In development work, we often look at problems, at systemic barriers and challenges. We fix (or try to). Visioning turns development on its head, starting from the possible, the potential, the ideal and the dream. It pushes you to move from fixing to building.

What is visioning?

Visioning moves away from what currently is and what could happen to what should happen. It is a process of determining what you want to see, what your ideal situation would be, without letting constraints hold back you’re thinking.

A vision can be described as “a clear and succinct description of what the organization or community should look like after it successfully implements its strategies and achieves its full potential. It is an expression by the  people about what they want the organization to be – a preferred future, a word or picture of an organization you choose to create.” (The University of Wisconsin)

Why does it matter in development?

Often when we are working to improve a situation or change a system, we focus on what is not working. We work with what we have and we strive to break down barriers to change. We work with how things are to make them better. But, if we want to create real, long lasting, systemic change, we have to question the status quo. We have to have the courage to build new systems and to think beyond what currently exists, the parameters that we’ve always been used to.

Visioning helps to do this. It helps us to not be hampered by what is, as we dream of what could be.

In my own work, I have found visioning incredibly useful for unlocking:

  1. Motivation – In sessions where we have worked with partners to build visions, I have seen excitement grow at the potential and the possible. I have seen partners and team members gain momentum for their work by being able to have a greater potential in mind. This motivation can help drive change.
  2. Purpose – Visioning can help build a picture and a structure to work towards, a possible future that helps drive the current work.
  3. Ideas – By visioning, you let go of your current constraints and your creativity is sparked. When you let go of pragmatism, possibilities open up and so many more ideas become available to you.

How do you vision?

You can do visioning at so many levels, from your personal development to the future of an entire organization, system or sector. There’s three key ‘rules’ to keep in mind while visioning:

  • Abide by the laws of physics
  • Abide by shared human values
  • You do not need to know the pathways to get there

The biggest hindrance to a visioning process is thinking or saying ‘well that’s not possible’ or ‘that can’t be done’ or ‘how would you do that?’. Stop yourself and remind others that this is not a time for planning or pragmatism, but visioning the possible. You do not need to know how you will operationalize your vision.

Try this activity for work placement visioning: With your team, take a few minutes to explain what visioning is. Remind your participants that they should not think how their vision would be realized or be constrained by what they think is possible. Keep it in the present tense. Individually, reflect on the characteristics of an ideal end of placement (imagining you’re already there). What  have you learned? What have you worked on? With whom have you built relationships? What capacity have you built? How have you grown? What are you taking away? What are you leaving behind? Use those noted characteristics to build a 1-2 sentence vision for your placement, using the present tense. Share it with the team. Store it away and come back to it at mid-placement and end of placement.  (We ran this activity with our Junior Fellows in their initial training in 2013 to envision the end of their 4 month work placements and it helped them to have purpose and drive as they dove into their placements.)

Take some time to envision and share the world that you want to see. “Why is it that we can share our cynicism, complaints, and frustrations with perfect strangers without hesitation, but we cannot share our dreams?” – Donella Meadows

I have to give huge credit and thanks to my friend and colleague Courtney Robinson, who introduced me to the art of visioning and who demonstrated its potential to motivate and catalyse change within AgEx in 2013. Courtney is the one who designed many of the visioning activities that our team has gone through in the last year and has opened my eyes to how dreams can be a tool for development. 

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