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How The Skill of Envisioning Creates Purposeful Futures

Envisioning is a vital leadership capability in the information age.

On-line streaming media shouting “the next big thing is...” creates uncertainty and confusion about current realities. Big data produced by technology reveals abstract patterns of a global world in ways that seem at times incomprehensible except to those who specialise in big data interpretation whilst organizations reduce risk at all costs by adhering to technology processes stifling the envisioning required to drive imagination and innovation.

The truth is envisioning - to picture in the mind - is a human attribute technology cannot replicate.

My recent research reveals most organizations and their leadership talk about the future yet very rarely develop envisioning as a basic organizational skill for creating value. The odd thing is envisioning is innate. Daily at work, we engage in it through focused dialogue and productive conversations that surface collaborative learning and collective insights to solve problems.

Skilful envisioning uses imagination instead of problem solving to direct the creative flow in an organization articulating purpose in a manner that has the power to bring employees, stakeholders, customers together to create meaningful futures.

The practice works best in a live environment where participants can bring all their aesthetic senses into play physically to express opinions, to observe and listen to others’ points of view, no matter how controversial or contentious.

In an organizational context, there are only three design elements in envisioning

  • A series of well crafted questions surfacing knowledge, wisdom and experience to create a meaningful and focused dialogue around the issues        

Properly researched and worded questions are the basic framework for envisioning and are crucial to successful outcomes. Ask the wrong questions and the outcome will be skewed towards specific interests or stakeholder needs rather than a genuine vision of future possibilities and opportunities.

Designing questions is not a simple or quick task. To obtain breakthrough thinking, the wording of questions needs to be revisited several times in the pre-planning stage to ensure questions are clear, concise, targeted and unambiguous in their intention.

Questions that explore issues such as “How can we enhance our capacity to talk and think more deeply together about the strategic and critical issues facing our organizations or systems?” and  “How can we access the mutual intelligence and wisdom we have to create innovative and positive paths forward?” are good starting points for thinking about question construct.

Questions can be epic or tactical or a combination of both and should be limited to no more than 5 in any one event.  Examples of recently used questions exploring the future of different industries and product and services can be seen at the bottom of this article.

  • Participation by representatives from all stakeholders who hold a position or interest in the outcome of such a dialogue regardless of their biases.

The participants provide the content for the vision. Create a matrix mapping the topology you are exploring to include the widest possible representative participation including those who will potentially add to and be affected by your vision. Miss representatives from quintessential elements of the topology you are envisioning and you will miss essential components of the vision.

Representatives working in an analogous field with no vested interests or positions and a recognizable and successful track record are a must inclusion. In a recent envisioning event focused on rowing, senior representatives from the digital world and triathlon as well as senior bureaucrats from Olympic sports funding bodies were included.

It is always good to add about 10% agent provocateurs to any participant mix.  Envisioning requires you think on the edges of current conditions so it is smart to include those you may consider far from the centre of current thinking that have something to contribute.   

One condition I insist in any envisioning event is agreement that participants operate under the Chatham House Rule.  The Chatham House Rule is a core principle that governs the confidentiality of the source of information received at a meeting. The rule originated in June 1927 at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London and states

“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed"

  • Butchers paper and a set of coloured pens on which to capture participant’s insights and comments

Technology has not found a way of capturing and revealing insights in a live event simultaneously and collaboratively so old fashion butchers papers and coloured pens act as the recording media. Participants record their insights as they occur on the butchers’ paper that cover the tables at which they are seated.

Envisioning events vary from 90 minutes to 6 hours depending on the importance of the agenda and how deep you wish the dialogues to be. Participants move from table to table and question to question maintaining the anonymity of their comments left on the butchers’ paper.

The big task is the transference of the handwritten comments into an ordered and meaningful document at the completion of the event. Often there are hundreds of sheets of butchers’ paper with illegible scrawls and I am always grateful to the persons who have spent hours deciphering and transcribing the comments.

What to do with the final envisioning document?

Comments need to be summarized under themes or topics so you can quickly observe patterns and outliers in the collective envisioning.

Once the document has been compiled, circulate it to the participants so they can be given the chance to review it and comment.  Finally use it as the basis to design a powerful forward looking strategic plan built on the common language used by the participants, devoid of the nonsense of managerial language and jargon buzz words.

Skilfully facilitated and carefully constructed envisioning has been known to stop wars, remove intractable impediments to change, create visionary new products and to provoke solutions to wicked problems.

Watch this early Steve Jobs video and reflect on just how powerful envisioning can be!!!



Recent Examples of Dr Kerle's Envisioning Projects

Envisaging A Future Procurement Model for the Delivery of Digital Health Services In Australia
(5 questions)
How will patient expectations and behaviours change in the next 25 years and how will the health services systems need to change, adapt or modify to meet these new behaviours and expectations?

Financial Services

(1 question)
Envisioning Social Innovation In Financial Services
What new financial services and products will be required to meet the changing dynamics and patterns of a 21st Century workforce?

The Future of Rowing in Australia
(5 questions)
How might rowing in Australia work better in collaboration in order to ensure the continuing success of the sport?

Learning and  Development
The Future of eLearning in Organizations
(1 question)
What will elearning look like in 25 years time and what effects will it have on the way we learn and work?

Creative Industries
Envisioning the Development of Creative Industries for Auckland, New Zealand.
(1 question)
How can creativity contribute to the development of a resilient vibrant and innovative city in 21st century?




Reader Comments (9)

Sir, I agree that envisioning is a human attribute technology cannot replicate. The results reached after drilling deep into big data can not always correctly predict future trends. They can however show us a possibility that was beyond expectations due to the assumptions and personal bias of a human that a machine will never have. What is required is a balance between the human wisdom and technology. We will then be able to frame the right questions that cover every possibility.

September 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShefali Bansal

Thanks for this GREAT STUFF!!

I have run a few of these types of session in the past in FMCG. I found that the best results came from thorough preparation of the fact base... in deed we have sometimes run a consumer insightment session before the envisioning event . Here we studied all the facts, met the consumers ourselves and even went on shopping safaris with them. It was really enlightening to try and step in their shoes and feel their needs, wants and gaps.

September 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStuart Rigby

Like the discovery aspect of your work, Stuart. Thanks for your kind comments.

September 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterRalph Kerle

Thanks Shefali. Certainly technology can provide insights from a certain perspective that will assist us in our thinking. No doubt. My conundrum is which comes first - the technology or the envisioning? Can technology envision?

September 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterRalph Kerle

The section on the composition of the team particularly resonated with me, especially the 10% of agent provocateurs !
I think I was one of those at times, but the meeting organisers often failed to see that when I was challenging, I was also always coming up with an alternate proposal - because I wanted the project to succeed.

Once a Director said to me "See ! I can take your challenge and resist it !", to which I replied : "You know I challenge because I care and I want things to work, so I try to be the devil's advocate to make sure we are ready for any problem that might come up. If one day I come to one of your meetings and I shut up, that's the day when you should worry - because it will mean I am disengaged and I don't care any more"...

This contrarian point of view may also have to do with my nationality (French) as we are educated, throughout our formative years at school, to always present ideas in the same manner : thesis / anti-thesis / synthesis... so we are groomed to express the opposite point in any discussion.

Anyways - thanks for an interesting post !

September 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSandrine Bardot

G'day Ralph, Thanks for bringing to our attention the importance of good questions and this is so overlooked at times but very vital to unraveling deeper and more targeted responses. Great article !

September 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVeronica Hazelman

Ralph, insightful post - thank you. Imagination and vision are the gateways to creating a (shared) future, the process we employ, the levers for 'discovering our greatest potential for action' (M Weisbord). While our world has moved further and further into the quantitative realm re: decisions, we've also lost ground re: our creative potential and ability to tap our tacit and intuitive knowledge. Balance is key, between metrics and dreams, and nothing is more powerful than a group discovering the values and dreams for a better future they all hold in common.

September 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShem Cohen

Great article Ralph!

I came from engineering background and now i'm working in corporate world. The way i'm looking at this there's one missing piece in order for people to get to envisioning process.

At the engineering school, we're taught with conceptualization. As example we're required to design a lunar roving vehicle. Hence we start with how it looks like and physically shall behave in lunar surface condition first before we went to itemize and details on the functionality that the vehicle should have. At this juncture, all things start to look possible as the functions determine what's required for each components to be able to materialize.

I believe to become innovative, envisioning is important as it will be able to create and send message on how the end state would be. Believe the conceptualization shall not only be taught in engineering school in universities but may also to other schools as it will be good foundation towards envisioning.


September 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHisham Mohammed Salleh

Hi Dr Kerle,

This is a very interesting article and I agree that the questions need to be well worded, thoughtful and aspiring. The examples you gave are very relevant.

You mentioned technology in your article. Once of the tools that we use for collaborative individual and group brainstorming is a tool called www.groupmap.com .

It allows individuals and teams to add and share ideas directly onto specific templates which can then be shared collaboratively, comments captured and dot voting.

It's really easy and effective in my humble opinion.

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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