The Vision Session: Strategy? What Strategy?
The gleaming urns are freshly filled with piping hot coffee. Rows of chewy, chocolate-studded cookies and a rainbow of fruit are organized in neat displays by the entrance. The room is comfortably stocked with pens and name cards, information packets and laptops. The clock strikes one…
With a healthy dose of caffeine and sugar and an insatiable eagerness to question business as usual and challenge assumptions, we’re ready for the Vision Session.
The Vision Session is the first step of our Integrated Operating Environment (IOE) process. It sets the stage for the entire engagement by creating a decision-making framework in real-time that provides guidance and context throughout the IOE process and into design and implementation. Over the course of three hours, the group, typically comprised of an organization’s leadership team and representatives of different stakeholders, participates in a face-to-face, interactive web-based session. Ideas are anonymously offered and commented on by each participant via laptop, while also being discussed and prioritized. The Vision Session is organized into four sections; Strategic Priorities, Decision Criteria, Design Attributes, and Constraints. The session starts by exploring broad, overarching strategies, and then drills down with increasing granularity with each section.
Strategic Priorities are identified and prioritized so that all future decisions can be tied back to an organization’s chief strategies and initiatives. These are meant to be high-level strategic concepts that guide the direction of the organization (i.e. revenue growth) rather than specific to our engagement (i.e. design of new conference facilities). Strategic Priorities can be unique to every organization, even within the same industry. For instance, one law firm may decide that their top Strategic Priority is to “preserve and refine a unique firm culture” while another firm may make it a priority to “be the top litigation firm in their market”. Clients may have three or a dozen Strategic Priorities, but regardless of the number, it is important for the organization to rank their priorities so that when it comes to decision making, it is clear what priorities are most important to the organization.
Following the ranking of Strategic Priorities, we move on to Decision Criteria. This section focuses on the ideas and tools that will help an organization decide between competing design and work process opportunities throughout the project. Clients develop their own unique set and ranking of Decision Criteria that include topics such as “collaboration”, “innovation”, “attraction and retention of talent”, and “flexibility to change”. The ranking of these criteria will depend on the organization’s mission, its current initiatives, its business model, and its desired future state, among other conditions as defined by their Strategic Priorities. “Collaboration” and “flexibility to change” may require a different design approach with unique tradeoffs that need to be weighed against each other. An organization that ranks “collaboration” highly may want to encourage face-to-face meetings through a variety of gathering and meeting areas. An organization that ranks “flexibility to change” highly may want to promote remote work with a greater emphasis on technology implementation and policy updates.
Identifying and ranking Design Attributes comes next. At this point, we ask the client to consider the “look and feel’ within their future work environment and the attributes they hope to include in the final design. It is important for organizations to consider not just how their employees experience their space, but how visitors and clients experience and interact with the brand of the organization. Design Attributes can vary dramatically, but some common examples include, “access to natural light”, dynamic and high energy”, and “open and spacious.”
Finally, identifying constraints – potential obstacles that could be barriers to success – at the outset allows us to plan for them in advance and avoid delays and costly surprises down the road.
Helping the Introverts Be Heard
We have a limited amount of time in the Vision Session to gather valuable insight and feedback from a wide range of stakeholders. These kinds of important, strategic discussions may be rare in an organization, making it even more important for all who attend to be able to participate efficiently. The electronic facilitation tool allows for a smooth and structured running of the session and enables all those present to share their ideas equally. Each participant has their own laptop, which allows them to enter ideas, suggestions, and notes on a particular discussion topic. When an idea is entered, it appears anonymously on the moderator’s screen for all to see. This format encourages participants to share ideas without worrying about what others may think of their idea. This is particularly useful when several levels of an organization’s hierarchy are participating in the session. When it comes time to prioritize a list of ideas, participants rank ideas anonymously and see the aggregated scores on the moderator’s screen. We have found this format to be extremely effective in encouraging active and meaningful participation from all those present.
Strategy? What Strategy?
One might expect leadership to typically be in agreement on their organization’s Strategic Priorities and their relative importance. However, we do encounter leadership teams that don’t agree on the strategic direction of their organization. One particular client was deliberating the importance of strategic revenue growth versus new conference facilities for the desired growth of their organization. The Vision Session process provides a supportive and constructive setting for participants to bring these disagreements to light and ultimately reach a consensus on critical strategies. Not only is this consensus essential for the ongoing decision making throughout the project, but it is also important for the future success of the organization.
Throughout the IOE engagement, we often uncover discrepancies between the views and priorities of leadership and the employees of an organization. When identified, these discrepancies can come as a surprise to leadership. Understanding the relationship between the views of leadership and employees plays an important role in determining how to manage the inevitable change that will occur as a result of our engagement. The Vision Session, in conjunction with the IOE engagement as a whole, surfaces issues and works to implement successful organizational change that includes all stakeholders. This can mean the difference between a successful engagement with the results embraced by the entire organization, and an unsuccessful engagement that fosters distrust and resentment amongst employees.
The Vision Session provides an invaluable lens through which to qualify and analyze the data we collect in our Operating Environment Survey, Focus Groups, and Observation Study. As we explore ways to develop a more integrated organizational, operational, technical, and physical environment to support an organization’s objectives we turn to the results of the Vision Session as a guide. As we work to refine and promote an organization’s culture, enable their ability to respond to future change, and inspire the skills and activities required to support an organization’s mission, we use the Vision Session as a foundation and validation tool for our work.