March 15, 2010

Reader challenge: Creating Meaningful Vision, Not Missions

There is a continuing frustration amongst many that for the past decade we've talked so much about the potential of digital media for learning, but that it hasn't translated into enough action. I wonder whether this is to do with the way we're expressing our vision(s) of the way it could be.

I've been working recently with teachers and creative agents from the Creative Partnerships programme in England and with startups from Eastern Europe and the UK in The Difference Engine incubator. Between the worlds of schooling and startups we've been concentrating on the same thing: how do you find out what it is you are actually doing so you can communicate your goal most effectively?

Most people's answer to this is a long, winding mission statement of intent, full of abstract concepts that are impossible - or difficult - to translate into meaningful actions. My first post with Cisco's GETinsight blog is very much on this theme: if you want to bring people along with you on a big change, whether it requires digital media or not, everyone needs to understand what the vision means for them.

Firstly, Benjamin Zander's take as orchestra director and conductor is incredibly helpful (from his brilliant work, The Art Of Possibility):

A Vision might
   ...articulate a possibility
   ...fulfill a desire fundamental to humankind
   ...never leave someone asking "but what about me?" a picture for all time
   ...use no numbers, dates, measurements, places, audiences, products
   ...not reference morality or ethics - there should be no right or wrong freestanding - pointing neither to a rosier future or a past in need of improvement

When I got thinking about my old school's motto - "Striving for Excellence, Caring For All" - I saw the part I had always liked ("Caring for All") but found that it let itself down on the first part. "Caring for all" I get, and can be translated through every action every teacher and student takes (and you can certainly tell when it's not been carried through into action). But "Striving for Excellence" wrangles against Zander's framework:

  • "Excellence" is a state that is not possible for every student in every way (we are excellent at some things, less so at (most) others). It's also an abstract: what does excellence actually look or feel like?
  • Being "excellent" is not as fundamental a human desire as "caring for all" of those around us. Most of us don't value "excellence" above caring and comfort.
  • It is not the ambition of every student to be "excellent" in everything they (have to) do at school. Many want to "get through", say, Mathematics to excel in Art and Design, or vice versa.
  • If we are striving for excellence what do we do when we get there? "Excellence" is not a picture for all time; in theory, if our vision is actionable, we will get there at some point. If we can't get there at some point, then our vision is not actionable and our vision is, therefore, less powerful to make things happen.
  • While not pointing to a statistical advantage, the implication of "striving for excellence" is that what we are doing now is not excellent enough, that we are pointing to a past in need of improvement or, more optimistically, that the future is rosier.

The same way of looking at things, and checking ourselves against it when we express ourselves on what we desire, applies in business. Steve Jobs outlines Apple's vision quite succinctly, and in a way that completely fits with Zander's vision:

“Apple’s goal isn’t to make money. Our goal is to design and develop and bring to market good products…We trust as a consequence of that, people will like them, and as another consequence we’ll make some money. But we’re really clear about what our goals are.”

They want to bring 'good' products to market - not excellent ones - and this goal is achievable. Nobody in the company can argue with this or their role in it.

If you're up for the challenge, share your school or company visions/missions in the comments below and have a go at reworking it along Zander's framework: does a new, more en-actionable vision emerge?

I've started bringing some of these thoughts together under the umbrella of national policy-making. Your thoughts would be incredibly valuable: is national policy destined to be uninspiring, visionless? What can we do to avoid that fate?


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Interesting. Our school's moto is 'developing individual potential' which on the one hand I like for recognising the potential is individual, but on the other hand I feel slightly uneasy about - developing each individual's potential for many would probably mean taking them out of the school system, and that's something we can't do. So by default it can become 'developing academic potential', which is something very different.

My brain is too tired to do anything creative with this right now, but this post is chiming with something I read over on Don Ledingham's blog earlier about the Finnish system of education with it's aspiration to be 'good enough'. (

Might try and come to this in a couple of days.

The strapline on our school prospectus says “We’re here to help you succeed. It’s that simple.”

Firing it up against Zander’s framework, it think it does pretty well, unless you consider that ‘succeed’ is similar to the ‘excellence’ in your old school motto? We’re very clear as a school that the definitions of success are personal and changeable over time. Success if flexible, and we can all succeed in stages. Success is scalable with experience, whereas ‘excellence’ isn’t.

At the moment we’re working towards a vision statement for a new school as part of BsF, in which we’ve been throwing around all kinds of issues (some of which I’m attempting to document on my ‘transforming learning and teaching’ blog). Fundamentally though we will always, I’m sure, come back to that core vision of helping everyone to succeed.

I really like that vision - clear, simple, actionable by everyone in the school. And it uses an active verb, rather than the continuous which implies we'll never get there :-)

My previous employers' mission statement was 'breaking down barriers', which I've always liked for its continuous vision. Breaking down barriers is a mission for all time. It does admit to a morality (barriers are bad and need to be broken down), but in general I was happy with that. Our goal was to link people around the world through a common language, and that mission statement certainly helped to inspire me over the years.

Our school vision statement starts with the words "Imagine a place where...". It encourages us to imagine. To dream. To envision. @bdw56

TED videos are always so inspirational. This one is no different with Benjamin Zander. It's great to hear from his prospective and how he sees the world given his occupation. Personally I like classical music and I don't recall ever meeting anyone who dislikes it.

The comments to this entry are closed.

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

Recent Posts