Still MORE on Clear Vision Statements

If you've spent any time poking around the Radical recently, you know that I've been hammering on the idea that schools need to create sets of clear, concise, actionable vision statements in order to be truly successful. 

In an instance of kharmic synergy, I found out this week that David Allen—one of the world's leading experts on personal and organizational productivity and the author of Getting Things Done (2002)—believes in the importance of vision statements, too!

For Allen, vision statements matter the most in knowledge-driven workplaces

He writes:

In the old days, work was self-evident.  Fields were to be plowed, machines tooled, boxes packed, cows milked, widgets cranked. 

You knew what work had to be done—you could see it.  It was clear when the work was finished, or not finished.

Now, for many of us, there are no edges to most of our projects.

(Kindle Location 174-179)

This lack of edges to our work causes stress and confusion for most of us.  It leads to an almost crippling inability to figure out what to do next in order to move in a productive direction—and that crippling inability is only magnified when people are working together on complex problems. 

When we take the time, Allen argues, to pause and to write down the "very next physical action required to move the situation forward"—a process that parallels my beliefs about writing vision statements in schools—we put ourselves in a more productive position:

You'll be experiencing at least a tiny bit of enhanced control, relaxation, and focus.  You'll also be feeling more motivated to actually do something about the situation you've merely been thinking about till now…

The situation itself is no further along, at least in the physical world.  It's certainly not finished yet.  What probably happened is that you acquired a clearer definition of the outcome desired and the next action required.

(Kindle Location 328-343)

Please don't underestimate how important this process is. As simple and as ridiculously-common-sensical as it seems, there are too many teachers working on too many learning teams in too many schools who have NO IDEA what it is that they're supposed to be doing with each other from day-to-day or month-to-month.

Sure, we've all heard the "you should be studying your practices" and "you should be looking at data" lines about a thousand times.  We've heard the "you should be deciding what your students should know and be able to do" line, too. 

And we're with you.  We WANT to be productive.  We see the value—for teachers and students—in collaborating with one another around practice.

But "studying practices" and "looking at data" and "figuring out what students should know and be able to do" are general terms.  Allen would call them tasks with no edges—and tasks with no edges leave professionals frustrated and lost. 

What is so darn aggravating to me is the nearly universally negative response that educators have towards vision statements.  Most—including building principals—will tell you that vision statements are nothing more than a waste of time that no one pays any attention to. 

Allen sees this resistance to clearly defining a vision all the time.  He writes:

Thinking in a concentrated manner to define desired outcomes is something few people feel they have to do.  But in truth, outcome thinking is one of the most effective means available for making wishes reality.

(Kindle Location 356-360)

What should this mean for you?  How can you translate the lessons that Allen has learned from decades of helping individuals and organizations to move forward? 


No matter what the cost in time or energy—no matter how skeptical your teachers are, no matter how divided your faculty is,  no matter how many other things you think you need to be doing—-you ought to find a way to lead your faculty through a visioning process that results in a set of tangible action steps that teachers and learning teams can work towards together. 

Rick DuFour and Bob Marzano call this giving teachers the gift of significance:

To be the best leader you can be, link the vision of your district, school, or classroom to the hopes and dreams of those you serve.

Work with a guiding coalition to develop the specific actionable steps you will take to move toward the vision. 

(Leaders of Learning, 2011, in publication)

Does ANY of this make sense


6 thoughts on “Still MORE on Clear Vision Statements

  1. Bill Ferriter

    Robert—in a comment that aligns nicely with Marshas skepticism—-asked:
    I find them also getting frustrated when the vision is not actionable.
    how to do that work collaboratively can be challenging. this needs
    strong leadership. thoughts?
    First, thanks for stopping by, Robert. Its good to see you in this space.
    And youre right: If vision statements are not actionable, they result in nothing but more frustration for everyone involved. I wrote a bit here on the Radical a few years back that showed what I think actionable vision statements should look like. Here it is:
    I got a ton of push back to that post from people who argued that my idea of vision statements was TOO detailed, but Im convinced—and happy to know that Allen agrees with me—that theres no such thing as being too specific when youre writing vision statements. Specificity brings clarity and edges to the generally ambiguous fluff that serves to guide courses of action in most knowledge-driven workplaces.
    I think the second part of your comment aligns nicely with Marshas thinking.
    If I understand her sentiment correctly, Marsha hasnt given up on vision statements because she doesnt believe in painting a clear picture of a better tomorrow.
    Instead, shes given up on vision statements because shes yet to meet a principal who really buys into the idea of giving teachers ownership over the direction of a schoolhouse. She—like many teachers—has probably sat through dozens of the visioning activities that I argue for, only to see her school leaders drop the shared vision immediately and start making the kinds of one-way decisions that have defined traditional leadership forever.
    And you can almost hear the exhaustion in her comment. Shes tired of hoping for collaborative leadership only to find out that its all lip-service.
    For the building principals who read this comment: Have your teachers given up on the idea of shared visioning too? If so, what is it about your leadership style/choices that has left them to wonder whether or not your school is YOUR school or OUR school?
    To connect Marshas thinking back to Roberts, vision statements in buildings where school leaders are only paying lip-service to the idea of developing truly collaborative communities led by teacher leaders arent actionable either—-and the most accomplished and motivated teachers know it. Often, weve given up on trying to truly own what happens in our buildings because we know that organizational power still rests in the hands of outsiders, and those outsiders can—and often do—change our direction as quickly as we set it together.
    Can you tell Im pretty pessimistic today?

  2. crazedmummy

    I agree with you, mratzel. I believe that the visioneers at our school are imbibing substances that cause them to see “differently.” I long ago learned that I could not accommodate another person’s hallucination. Maybe all teachers need to join Al-Anon.

  3. mratzel

    Dear Bill,
    I wish I was with you on this one. I’ve tried to get on this bandwagon. But I can’t.
    Here’s why. Most recently I’ve been working in an organization that sets it’s goals and then lets the teachers know what they want. I think it’s a huge waste of my time to ask to me come up with a shared vision statement, if I have no part in creating a vision and if no one cares what I could see in future of where I work. If my part is simply to carry out the vision of my bosses, then that’s what I will do.
    To ask me to create a vision statement on someone else’s vision doesn’t strike me as a genuine thing to do.
    Maybe one of the questions you should be asking leaders of districts to do is this…what have they done at the school board level and at the highest levels of a district to make sure that the teacher’s voice is included and truly counted in setting the long range plans. If a teacher’s role is marginal at best in setting a long range plan, how could we ever be included in the work of a vision statement?
    I don’t think organizations can have it both ways. If they are more top down, then own it. Tell us what to do and we’ll do it. I’ll do it to the best of my ability and do it well. But if you want an organization to have shared values and visions, then long range plans have to be generated from ideas from the classrooms, the teachers and the students.
    From where I stand, this is why there is so much resistance and why vision statements don’t help me one iota. Sorry.

  4. Parry

    “[Y]ou ought to find a way to lead your faculty through a visioning process that results in a set of tangible action steps that teachers and learning teams can work towards together.”
    How do you see this interfacing with the typical school improvement planning process, and the annual or bi-annual development of a School Improvement Plan? Do you see these as synonymous, or as separate processes?

  5. Robert ryshke

    thanks for the insight into using vision statements to make the collaborative work meaningful. I think you have provided a clear direction. do you also think putting vision into action is the next most important step in the process. you make the point that faculty are sometimes frustrating when they don’t understand why they are doing the work. I find them also getting frustrated when the vision is not actionable. how to do that work collaboratively can be challenging. this needs strong leadership. thoughts?
    bob ryshke
    center for teachin

  6. Tim Kanold

    Bill, Thanks again, for taking on a important topic that is almost a “First Order of Business” for every school leader. In fact, I believe it is the most important tool and gift a school leader can bring to the faculty and staff.
    Without a shared vision, and a well designed shared vision development process, coherence to your work and effort leaves the building. And everyone is frustrated.
    And, even if you have a shared vision, it naturally will leak and dissipate over time if not a consistent aspect of the decision-making process.
    In my book that will be released by ST in June, this is the 1st Discipline of PLC leaders – to get right the effective building of a shared vision….

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