In the last couple of weeks, the topic of a shared future came up in more than a handful of conversations with leaders. Having gone through a few different versions of the same chat, I thought I would write down, in the form of a blueprint, my preferred method to create a collective envisioned future.
I also want to try a more direct, how-to approach to articles like these, in the hope that people out there can get use out of it immediately instead of having to hunt down the method through a bunch of rhetoric.
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
The problem: As a leader, you are trying to make your team or organization coalesce around a shared view of the future. As teams grow, it becomes increasingly important to plant a flag on the horizon, a common goal, vision.
The blueprint: Crafting an envisioned future
I’ve done this two different ways: either writing down a detailed envisioned future or articulating a more generic end-state or outcome. If you are looking for a practical path towards a distinct result, I recommend using the envisioned future version of this blueprint. For example: “It is [some time in the future], and we are the indisputable category leader. Our user conference is sold out, with a record number of 10,000 attendees! Our customers…”
In situations where you are seeking a way to veer teams towards a specific direction but want to leave room for them to make the ‘how’ their own, I recommend articulating a more generic end-state or outcome: “We are a legendary team. Our word is our highest form of commitment. We get the job done over anything else. We are a talent magnet because we continually form the next generation of world-class leaders.” So how do you go about doing this?
Step 1: Get everyone’s input.
The essential step in the entire process is this very first one. Since we are looking for collective ownership, we need to let everyone be part of the creational process.
Define ‘By when?’ Set a time horizon in the future that suits the type of outcome you are seeking to achieve. For example, if you are looking for multi-quarter strategic initiatives that will lead you to create a new market category, set a time horizon between 2 and 3 years into the future. When we did this back in 2013 when we were opening Medallia’s engineering offices in Buenos Aires, we wanted “to become the employer of choice for every student graduating from Computer Science careers in Argentina.” At the time, we had a handful of employees, and we gave ourselves two years to complete this endeavor. I must admit it was quite a lot more challenging to achieve than what we imagined at the time and impossible in the given timeframe. Nevertheless, the initiatives that stemmed from that exercise did put us on a very steep trajectory towards our envisioned future.
Make it vivid. To have a clear target, have each team member write their sentences in the present tense. A good trick is to start with a prompt that forces it: “It is March 1st, 2022…” What I like about envisioned futures over mission/vision statements is that they keep you grounded, becoming a better tool for execution. Have your team describe details about this future: What did already happen? How does it feel? What are people saying about it? Eventually, these details will let the team craft an action plan that will have a higher chance of success: “It is March 1st, 2022, and we have just been awarded the Category Leader award by XYZ. We hit our revenue numbers for the 8th quarter in a row, crossing the $xMM mark…”
Dream big. The fact that you are writing in the present tense and you have a timeframe defined will pull you down to earth. The analogy I like to think about is being on stage in front of a big crowd. You have to amplify your presence, so you don’t get sucked up by the audience. Same here, don’t let the fact that you have a finite time to achieve this future, crush your ability to dream.
Step 2: Seek to understand
Put all envisioned future statements along with their author’s name in a single document, and distribute it among all team members. Have them read it. Get together as a team, and one by one go around the room having each author read their statement, explain details, rationale, intensions. Have the rest of the team members ask questions and comment on things they liked and things they didn’t. Someone should be documenting this exchange avidly.
This session is an integral part of the exercise. Whether you’ll be crafting the final statement or the team will collectively do it, it is important to understand what people wrote, why they wrote it, and what did they intend to say.
Collective ownership starts here. It’s during these discussions where common themes appear, and you will start seeing the transition from the sum of the parts to a collective whole.
Step 3: Putting it all together
The output from the previous step should be a list of concepts or phrases that will form part of the resulting envisioned future statement. At this moment, you can follow two different paths. You can decide that you, as the leader, should collect the inputs and come up with a final version or you can try and get to the same result as a group.
Deciding to write the final statement yourself could be a good option if you are running this exercise with several teams or a bigger team (10+ people). Doing it this way will likely result in a more cohesive statement as well as give you the chance to emphasize aspects that are particularly important to you or the current reality of the group. If you go this route, the result must reflect the input of the entire group, or the whole exercise would have been wasted.
If the size of the group is manageable, I recommend going this route. I’ve learned a technique from a colleague of mine, Ken Fine, to help a team converge when there are multiple options on the table (it’s a variation of either’ The hundred dollar test’ or ‘Multivoting’). Grab your list of concepts/phrases from Step 2 and number each of them. Count how many items you have. Each team member gets one-third of the number of items you have, rounded down.
For example, if you have a total of fourteen concepts the group has considered, each individual gets four votes (14 ÷ 3 = 4.67. Rounded down to four). Give the group five to ten minutes to distribute their votes (only one vote per concept) and tally the votes. Counting the votes is a ton of fun, give it a shot, it’s guaranteed to get at least one good laugh out of the group!
Once the tally is over, sort the concepts by votes received, and select those with most votes concentration as your top ones. If you need a hard and fast rule to do this, select only those concepts voted by at least two-thirds of the group. If this is not enough to work with, extend it to include those that got votes from at least half the group. There will be quite a few concepts that will end up having one or two votes only. Give the room one last chance to make a case for any idea that hasn’t made the top of the list. It had happened to me that a compelling argument pushes an idea to the top of the list, even when there was no consensus initially.
If you feel the output of this exercise could remain as a list of concepts, your job is done. If there’s still good energy in the room, I encourage you to make the final push and stitch a good, powerful paragraph together. In every group, there are at least a few members that feel comfortable with the written language. Tap on to these folks, and have them live-edit a final statement.
The renewed energy you and your team will get out of this exercise is ridiculous. Try it. You won’t regret it!
Score yourself. If nothing else, I recommend you have each team member regularly score themselves and the team against the envisioned future. How’s our progress towards it? How’s my contribution? What’s the risk we might not make it? Do this monthly or quarterly, depending on your time horizon, but do it. You are guaranteed to have meaningful conversations and increased chances of achieving your future goals.
Stop, start, continue. If you’re shooting for an end-state or continuous outcome (“Become a legendary team,” for example), an exercise I like doing is asking each individual within the team what we should stop, start, and continue doing to achieve our desired outcomes. You should ask this as a team but, more importantly, individually. Ask everyone (including yourself) to commit to the group what they will stop, start, and continue doing and review these every time you do this exercise, at least quarterly.
Gaps and initiatives. One last exercise you can do, which works well to identify the path that will take your team from where you are to where you want to be is a gap analysis and associated initiatives. Ask each individual to point out the gaps that exist between where you are today and your envisioned future. Then have them propose initiatives that will get you one step closer to achieving the end-state (this is an exercise in itself, worthy of a whole new article).
My own experience with this blueprint
I’ve done this exercise many times in my professional life. Whether I was leading the activity or participating as a team member, I always left the room feeling energized, empowered, and excited about the future. Now I want to be honest as well. This exercise will make your team feel amazing (believe me), but this must only be the beginning. While it is impossible to achieve anything without a clear and shared target, merely having one will not get you there. If you let the adrenaline rush of this exercise wear off by lack of action and poor execution, nothing much will come of it. As I’ve once heard Marty Abbot say: “Results = Results. Nothing else equals results.”
A plug for Blueprint
At Blueprint, we are codifying leadership best practices such as the one described in this article and making them operational. Much like apps you install on your phone, these are blueprints you deploy for your team on our platform. If you are curious to hear more or give our platform a test drive, let us know!