Leaders of all kinds of organizations struggle with getting front-line staff and volunteers to implement change. While we’d all like to blame “stubborn people who just won’t get the vision”, more often than not the problem lies with the visionary leader and not his people.
There are three basic ways why the vision can fail to inspire change:
1. Sometimes the vision is wrong.
In an ideal world everyone would end up in positions doing they are gifted at. This means the best visionaries would end up as leaders and the best implementers would end up on the front line. This isn’t always the case. If you’ve ever seen the cult-classic movie “Office Space”, you’ve seen how the grand corporate vision can be pretty dumb. If you’ve ever read Dilbert comics, you’ve seen how the latest “vision” is just a warmed-over and poorly understood version of whatever the latest management fad just happens to be. In either case, front-line staff and volunteers are hooped.
2. Sometimes the vision isn’t communicated
Occasionally leaders will have a clear idea where they want to go, but they don’t tell anyone else. They skip the big questions of “why” and jump right into the “what’s” and the “how’s” for the rest of their staff. This results in two major problems – staff resistance and bad decisions made with bad information.
We can’t really blame the people for covertly or overtly resisting leadership here. Most rational people are opposed to screwing up what they do for no reason at all. And when leadership communicates change without communicating vision – that is exactly what they are asking people to do – for no reason.
Resisting change is generally for the best for the organization in these situations, because, chances are, it was a dumb idea to begin with. Why? Because it was a decision based on bad information. Nobody knows the practical details of front-line work quite like front-line workers – they are the organization’s natural experts on where the rubber meets the road. When leaders start imposing detail-level decisions on their people without consulting them, they are ignoring the best data and expertise and replacing it with boardroom fantasies and delusions. This is rarely the recipe for a good plan.
3. Sometimes the vision is half-baked
It’s not that the vision is wrong, it’s just not finished. A vision that doesn’t have clear implications for change can never be implemented. This is a common problem because most visionaries suck at working out details. What a good leader needs to do is move from the original vision and help “clarify the win”. The “yes, but how” question needs to be answered. A well-thought out vision should make it clear to everyone which changes they need to make and why. A vision that doesn’t have a direct impact on the details is clearly useless.
Considering that most visionaries are bad at the details it seems that a well-thought out vision is simply an impossibility. This is why communication isn’t enough, there must be real collaboration between leadership and those on the front-line. If you ever want the vision and the details to actually meet, you’re going to have to get vision experts and your detail experts together in the same room to talk. Front-line staff and volunteers have the most knowledge and experience in dealing with the details and lead staff have the most knowledge and experience at seeing the big picture. The two groups need to work together and listen to each other if the organization is going to flourish.