Building vision

Building a vision – a practical guide

Leif-Runar Forsth and Bodil Nordvik

Vision building is as old and natural as man himself. Vision building has become an effective mean for individuals and organizations to set and achieve goals. A practical step by step guide to building a vision is presented. This is made for building visions in groups and organizations, but most of the steps may also be used for individual visions.



Visions from time immemorial

For as long as we have knowledge from man, man has used visions as an important tool in their daily life. The oldest records of vision building are the cave paintings that are thought to have been used as hunting magic. According to Jung (1964): “By its symbolic slaughter, the hunters attempt to anticipate and ensure the death of the real animal. What happens to the picture will happen to the original.”

The visions were not limited to picture representation. Examples are hunting dances and other hunting rituals. By simulating the hunting and the capture of the pray, the reality is also thought to become true. Visions have also been extensively used in fertility rites.

A vision is also a wish of what we want to happen. In many traditions it is believed that just by making a wish, the wish may come true. Examples of this are many kinds of greetings that contain a wish of well-being. Daydreaming is an excellent form of visionalizing.

Visions are today extensively used for business purposes, see e.g. Chan and Justis (1991), El-Namaki (1992), MacQueen and Vicere (1987), Parker (1990), Saxberg (1993), Uehara (1992) and Waddell (1992).

In this article we describe a practical step by step guide to building a good vision for an organization. We and our colleagues have used this method, directly or in a modified form, for vision building in about ten years. More than three thousand persons from thirty to forty different nationalities have participated in such vision buildings.

The method is primarily used for building visions in organizations, but most of the steps may also be used for building individual visions.

The method is flexible. Several of the steps may be replaced by other methods or techniques according to the qualifications and the experiences of the facilitator. You may also use some of the steps alone. E.g. you may build a vision by daydreaming or other methods, and work with the vision as described here.


A picture language

An important tool in our method is the picture language. This was originally developed by Baptiste for communication between people with different languages. The picture series are published in Babin et al. (1972) and Belisle and Baptiste (1978), (1979) and (1980).

You may also build your own picture language. We have built series for this purpose. Small sizes like postcards or pictures about twice this size.

The number of pictures used in the process depends on the number of participants. Our experience is that you should use at least fifty pictures, but no more than two hundred in the same process. It should at least be twice as many pictures as the number the participants are allowed to choose (this is described in step 3).

The best thing to do is to build your own series of pictures to get a better understanding and feeling of those pictures as elements of a language. The following advices should be observed when making your series of pictures: Choose mostly pictures that give a good feeling. Pictures may communicate very strongly and to the subconscious part of the mind and should be used with care. Other kinds of pictures may be used very effectively, but the reactions may be more difficult to handle.

About 25% of the pictures used in a session, should be directly related to the kind of vision to be built. This means that they should be the pictures that directly or symbolic, may represent the whole or parts of the vision. Examples are people doing all kinds of things together. This can be working together, playing, sporting or any other kind of human social conduct. Pictures of animals, trees or flowers may also symbolize an organization. Many abstract art can also express this.

Another 25% of the pictures should be connected to the possible vision in one way or another. If a vision contains courage, happiness, stability, change or creativity, we should have pictures that give the possibility to express these things.

Another 25% of the pictures should be stimulating pictures. Of course all pictures are stimulating, but some are chosen just for this purpose. These may be very strange pictures, pictures with strong or special forms or colours, funny pictures or whatever you find stimulating.

The last 25% of the pictures should just be nice pictures. This means any kind of picture that you like to look at.

This guide should not be taken too seriously. It is more rule of thumbs than exact guidelines.

We use both photographs and art. Our experience is that art, both old and modern, may be very effective as a picture language in vision building and other communication situations.


A practical step by step guide

Step 1: Preparation

The basic visions of different kinds of organizations, are usually very similar. Most people want the same things at a more basic general level. At work we want to have colleagues that we can trust and that like us, material and personal safety, inspiration etc.

There are also differences depending on what the organization is doing. A high-tech company that continually has to develop its products to keep the market, will get a different vision than a hospital. In the first case qualities as creativity, flexibility and aggression may be useful. In the other case, tenderness, care and understanding of other people may be more important.

When choosing the pictures to use for the vision building, this should be considered. This means that several pictures should be fitted to express such kinds of values or capabilities. Pictures of people jumping in parachutes, doing winter skiing or water skiing, may be used to express courage and action. A child’s caring for a kitten or a puppy, may express closeness, caring and love.

You may put the pictures on tables. The pictures should be laid out before you go to step 2.

Before we proceed to step 2, arrange the participants in small groups of four to seven members. The members of the group sit in a circle. There must be sufficient space in the middle to place the pictures. The participants sit on chairs and place the pictures on the floor between them. In this way they have to bend forward to place and work with the pictures. This brings the participants physically closer together. Literally they put their heads together, and therefore also mentally closer.


Step 2: Connect to memories and states of minds/moods

On the surface a vision is a description of our wanted future situation. More basically it is an expression of our deeper, inner feelings, beliefs and hopes. A good vision agrees with our deepest values and beliefs, even if those are not explicitly expressed while building the vision or in the vision itself.

A good vision is also an accumulation of previous experiences. When we are finding what we want to happen, we always have to base this on our previous experiences. In a way we can say that a vision is a picture created by fragments from our previous life. It may also contain things we have not experienced ourselves, but things we have wanted to experience. A very important part of these previous experiences is the moods or state of minds connected to these.

The important thing is therefore to connect the vision to those kinds of memories. We shall now describe this by the instructions we may give in this step of the process. We may say like this:

Sit relaxed in your chair. Straighten your back and hold your head straight. Let the body be symmetrical. Do not cross your legs or your arms. Rest your feet on the floor. You may have your eyes open, but it is better to have them closed. Breathe deeply. Feel that your chest participates in the breathing. Just relax and feel good.

Try to remember something nice you have experienced as a child or a youth. Experience something that you like and feel good about. Maybe you remember some situations when you have done things together with other people. Or situations where you have done things for yourself. Try to sit and remember these things and enjoying these experiences. If it comes up some experiences that you do not like, go to another experience or change the unwanted experience to the way you want it to be.

Just sit and relax and experience this and have a good time.

Slowly start to come back to this room. Open your eyes and listen to me. Do not speak because you are now going to look at some pictures.

The important part of this session is to create a relaxed and good mood. And to refresh the memories, experiences and the states of minds, and feelings and moods connected to these.


Step 3: Building the basic individual vision

We will also explain step 3 by the instructions we may give:

Now we are going to look at some pictures that we have placed on the tables. It is very important that you follow my instruction. It is not important that you understand my instruction completely, just try to do your best. I will repeat the most important parts, and if I see that some of you are doing it in a way it should not be done, I will also repeat the instructions. So, just relax and enjoy the experience.

The most important thing is that you should not talk. We are now going to enter the picture part of the brain. This is another part of the brain than those used when thinking in words, making words, speaking words and listening to words. If you talk, you will disturb the picture part of your brain in its process. And even more, you will disturb the process for the other participants. They will activate quite other parts of the brain if they have to listen to words.

I have to talk to give the instructions.

Get up, without saying anything, go to the tables with the pictures and start to look at them. Just walk back and forth, around each other and look at the pictures. Take your time, move around, look at the pictures and enjoy them. Look one or two seconds at each picture.

After the participants have looked at all or most of the pictures, you give them the next instruction. To know when to do that, you should notice one, two or three of the participants and notice when they have seen most of the pictures. It is not important that all the participants have seen all the pictures before we go to the next step.

We then give the instructions:

Continue to look at the pictures. Try to see which of the pictures are telling you something about the way you want it to be in your company. Look at each picture and see what it really tells about this. Again look one or two seconds at each picture and see what it tells you.

After the participants have looked at all the pictures for some time, you go on to the next instruction.

Continue to look at the pictures. Do not touch the pictures, but try to find which of the pictures that best describe the way you want it to be in your organization.

When the participants again have looked at most of the pictures, you give instructions like these:

Pick two or three pictures that best describes the way you want it to be in your organization. If anyone else has taken your picture, choose another one. There are several pictures which express the same thing.

After some people have found the pictures they have chosen, you give the instructions:

Sit on your chair. Look at the pictures you have chosen. What more do these pictures tell you? Every picture says a lot more. What more do your pictures tell you about how you want it to be in your organization?

The important thing in this step is that people should not talk. If there is much talking, the process will not have as strong impact as it otherwise can have.

Another thing that often happens is that people are queuing up when looking at the pictures. If people are too much concentrated on the person before or behind them in the queue, they will nor have their full attention on the pictures. Just give instructions that they should walk freely around if necessary. One way of avoiding queuing, is to place the pictures on several small tables so the participants have to walk a little bit here and there.


Step 4: Building the small group vision

This step is to build a vision for a small group. The step is again described by an example of the instructions that may be given.

We are now going to build a vision with our pictures. It is very important that you treat the pictures, your own and the others, with respect. These pictures are no longer only pictures. They are expressions of opinions, thoughts, feelings and beliefs. They are also parts of the vision.

Proceed in the following way: Each person tells the others in the group what the pictures mean to him or her. Show the pictures and place them on the floor between you. Do not step on the pictures.

One person speaks and the others just listen without any comments. Do not describe the pictures in too many words, try to describe shortly what the pictures mean to you. The meaning of the pictures is what each person makes it to be. When one person tells the others what the pictures mean, we are not going to have other opinions of the meaning of the pictures. Later, another person may use the pictures to express another meaning. He may use this meaning as a part of the way he wants the vision to be.

When everyone has told the others about the pictures, we start building the small group vision. This should be made by five pictures put in a special way in relationship to each other. Each picture shall express one or more aspect of the vision. The meaning is what the one who speaks about the picture puts into it. This is his or hers contribution to the vision. Another person can put more things into it as his or hers contribution to the vision.

The way the pictures are placed in relationship to each other should be given its special meaning. You choose in what way you should put them and the meaning of this. If you choose to put them in a circle, you should give your interpretation of what it means when the pictures relate to each other in a circle. If you put them in a line, you should also make interpretation of what this means.

It is not allowed to argue against other persons pictures or their suggestions to the vision. If you want another picture or the vision to be in another way, argue for that.

To sum it up: You shall now build a common vision for the small group consisting of five pictures put together in the special way that you yourself choose.

The small group vision should consist of three to five pictures. As a facilitator you choose the number yourself. The number should be chosen so that it is not possible for the participants in the group to participate with the same number of pictures to the small group vision. If there are three persons in the group, then the small group vision should be built with four or five. If it is five persons in the group, the small group vision should be built with three or four pictures. Using a number of pictures that prohibit the participants to make an equal contribution of pictures, increase the possibility of a real discussion of what pictures should be chosen for the vision.

When the small groups have built their visions, we go to the next phase of step 4. We describe this in the instructions given.

We have now built the vision of this small group. In the next step we are going to make a vision for the total group. We will do this in similar way that we made our small group vision.

Prepare the presentation of your vision to the other groups. You have to present it so that you convince the others that this is the best vision for our organization. You have to prepare your arguments. Remember, you will not be allowed to argue against the other groups visions, only for your own vision.

Prepare your presentation, what you are going to say and who is going to say it. The vision can be presented by one person in the group or all of you. You choose yourself.

The problem in step 4 is that the small groups do not finish at the same time. Therefore, you have to do some coaching during the process.


Step 5: Building the large group vision

Now we are ready for building the vision for the large group. All the participants shall now be placed in a big circle so that again every participant sits in a similar position to the total group. The members of the small groups shall sit together side by side. The process is similar to the process in the small groups. First the groups present their visions, then we have a discussion to make the total vision.

Seven pictures are usually the maximum number that can be used in this step. It is difficult to have an understanding and a general view of more than seven pictures.

When we have finished building this vision for the organization, each participant is given the possibility to extend the vision for themselves. It is important for each participant to get a vision that is really their own. This is done by letting them take one or more pictures and place them between the common vision and the participant.

Usually we use from one to two hours to go to step 2, 3, 4 and 5. This depends on the size of the group and in what way the discussions develop.


Step 6: Describe the vision in words

A vision is in principle in pictures. We also describe it in words. It is important to anchor the vision to the verbal parts of the brain and the other parts connected to this.

You may give instructions like these:

Now we have described the vision in pictures. During the discussion we have also described it in words. We will now give a short description in words of what the vision means. This will mostly be a repetition of what has been said before. Will anyone of you do this?


Step 7: Describing the vision of the whole organization

The process as described in step 2-6 may be used in not too big groups. We usually use it in groups up to thirty members, but occasionally it has been used in groups up to fifty to sixty members.

For bigger groups or organizations we then have to divide the organization into smaller groups, for example of size thirty. The vision for each such group is built in the way described in step 2-6.

To make the vision for the total organization, we go on like this: If the organization is small enough for everybody to come together in a big meeting, this is preferable. We then present the visions in pictures and words from the different groups. We show what is similar in the group visions. We say that the same thing is said in different ways, but basically they express the same vision. And for those things that are really different, we say that here we have differences from the different groups, and this gives a bigger and stronger vision for the whole organization. This shows that we are different, which makes us a more powerful and flexible organization. The common parts are enough to be the core vision for the total organization.

We end up with a description of the total vision in words. At last we have a vote over the total vision.

In larger organizations this is not possible. The important participation is by building the basic visions. A management group may put all the group visions together and come up with the vision for the total organization. As long as this has a core according to the group visions, and allow the groups or the individuals to extend the vision, this will usually be accepted by the whole organization.

The vision may also be summed up in pictures similar to the pictures that come up in the different groups. It is also possible to get an artist to make a picture expressing the same thing as the pictures used before.


Step 8: Widening the vision

Widening means to describe it in more details. For a company, the vision should include all the important parts and activities of the company. Widening the vision may then be to describe how big the market shares should be, who the customers should be, and so on. We may describe how the customers are very satisfied and come back to order more, how the order department receives these orders and how happy they are about this, how we describe this increase in sale in our annual report, etc.

This widening of the vision gives a more practical description of what the vision really means. We then get a better understanding of this. This also increases the motivation as it shows us what the results may be when the vision is made real.


Step 9: Deepening the vision

The deepening of the vision is to describe better what we really achieve by fulfilling the vision. We usually do this by one or both of two question methods. The first is to ask is what we will achieve if the vision, or a specific part of it, is fulfilled. The other is to ask why we want to achieve this vision or this special part of it. This questioning is continued until we have a good understanding what the vision will give us and why we want this vision.

A process may be like this (the questions of the facilitator are shown in italics):

Why do you want our product to be a leading product in the market?

So I can be proud of having developed a good product.

Why do you want to be proud of having made a good product?

So I will feel more satisfied with myself.

What if you make this good product and are satisfied with yourself, what will you have achieved by this?

I will be more happy and content. I may also be promoted in my work. This will give me more satisfying jobs and I will earn more money.

What will you then have achieved?

My wife and I can by the house we have been talking about for seven years.

The deepening of the vision is important for the motivation to make the vision come real. If we really understand what the result of the vision will be and why we want it, this may give a strong motivation to really do what is necessary.


Step 10: Make the vision sensible

How do we know that we have fulfilled our vision? The vision, and the result of the vision, must be observable. This means that we can observe it with one or more of our senses. This may already have been done to a large extent by the previous steps.

An example is if the vision contains the element that our company should be economically sound (this is usually a part of the vision for a private company). How will we observe that? We may see it on a bank account, or finally we have done the long needed replacement of the old furniture, we no longer have all this worried words from our leader, our salary has increased etc.

How do we observe that our colleagues are more inspired and happy? We may see that they smile more, they move more freely and energetic, they tell more jokes etc.

For every goal we want to reach, we have to have a way to know when we have reached it.


Step 11: From vision to goals

Sometimes the vision gives goals good enough. But mostly we have to make the vision more concrete and practical by specifying it in practical goals. The goals are also necessary for us to know what it really means to fulfil the vision and to know when we have done this.

Sometimes we do step 11 in the same workshop as the previous steps. Very often the goal setting is a larger process that should be done later and by the department and the people that have responsibility for the specific goals in their areas.


Step 12: From vision to reality

This step can be done in a similar session as the vision building or at a later session. Sometimes we must have several different sessions later.

The gaps between the present situation and the wanted situation, we use as starting points for a creative problem solving session. We usually use the CPS-method (Creative Problem Solving), Noller, Parnes and Biondi (1979) and Forsth (1991). But any problem solving or creative method that you are familiar with, may be used in step 12.

A complete vision building should result in a plan of action for achieving the vision.


Practical application

We have in this article described a complete step by step method for building a vision. When you master this approach, you may modify this in many ways. We often reverse the order of some of the steps or repeat some of the steps. We also include other methods or techniques depending on the situation, the group, and what kind of vision we are going to build and the purpose of the vision building. The most important part of each step is its purpose and not necessarily the way it is described here.

On the other hand, a step by step process as described here, usually gives a good result. Vision building is very popular today and a lot of methods are used by a lot of people. It is rather simple to facilitate a vision building process that is experienced as successful by the participants. However, many such processes will be just that. A nice experience that gave a good vision and could serve as an inspiration for the participants. But later, nothing more happens. They have built their vision, but there are no signs that anything is done differently than before or that anything may contribute to the fulfilment of the vision. Usually one or both of the two following things are missing:

The vision has not been connected well enough to the vision holders. This means that the vision is not a sufficiently good fulfilment of their basic inner hopes, values and beliefs. In our step by step process we do this in step 2, 8, 9 and 10. The process in step 3, 4 and 5 also contributes to this.

The other thing that often lacks is to continue the process after the basic vision has been built. This we do by identifying the gaps between the present situation and the vision. We find ideas, and finally a plan, to bridge this gap. This we do especially in step 11 and 12, but also step 8, 9 and 10 contribute to this.

The best should not, however, be the enemy of the good. A simple vision building process that results in a vision that the participants are satisfied with, are usually an inspiration and a shared experience that will do the participants and their organization only good. But a good thing can be better, and this article presents a way to achieve that.


The authors Leif-Runar Forsth is the director of Norwegian Institute of Creativity, a nonprofit foundation for research, development and teaching of creativity. He is also an organizational consultant.

Bodil Nordvik is also one of the founders of Norwegian Institute of Creativity. She is now director of the consulting company IPO A/S.



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