Your Vision is the Problem

I am bombarded with talk about vision. Both on a macro level and filtering down to the level of individual technical directors and tech teams, we can’t seem to get enough vision — What’s your vision for your team? Where’s your vision statement?

This is a problem. Here’s my case.

At the church I work at, as a staff, we are reading the book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. The authors develop a foundational concept that I really like called “the pool of shared meaning.”

“Dialogue” is the free flow of meaning between two or more people. Each of us enters conversations with our own opinions, feelings, theories and experiences about the topic at hand. This unique combination of thoughts and feelings makes up our personal pool of meaning. This pool not only informs us but also propels our every action.
When two or more of us enter crucial conversations, by definition we don’t share the same pool. Our opinions differ.

from an online book summary by Executive Book Summaries

The goal, then, by having crucial conversations, is to move from a personal pool of meaning to a shared pool of meaning.

The pool of shared meaning, the collective story that we agree on, the backstory that makes us a tribe, is of upmost importance. The American church has fallen in love with the concept of vision, but our story—the narrative that we tell ourselves about ourselves—is way more valuable. Without a pool of shared meaning our vision becomes empty words void of substance. It is the story of ourselves, who we really are, that propels any vision. (And by vision, I mean this: what the future will look like if we follow this leader)

Risking sacrilege: our vision is like Adam, formed of dust and lifeless. Our story (our pool of shared meaning) is like the breath of God which animates the vessel of clay, and brings it to life.

In case you can’t tell, I’m sick of vision talk.
What’s your vision? Blah, blah blah.
Without a vision your team is sunk! Blah, blah, blah.
Without a vision, the people perish. Blah, blah, blah. (Yes, I just blah, blahed scripture)
Vision, vision, vision! Gotta get a vision! We need vision!

Whoopty-freakin-do!

Sounds like chicken squawking to me and just about as valuable.
Your vision is the problem.

  • You thought vision was a panacea…
  • You thought it was the secret sauce that made church fun, wrinkle free, and BIG!…
  • You thought vision was uniting and inspiring…
  • You invested hours word-smithing, debating, praying, and agonizing over your vision…

… that’s why your vision is the problem.

A vision is not a bad thing. It’s just not everything. Not by a long shot.
In my thinking process today, I’ll give vision a seat at the table, though not even that prominent of a place. We could say, the keys to effectiveness are mission, story (that pool of shared meaning thing), vision, strategy, tactics, and accountability. And that order is significant.*

Mission

Our mission was commanded by Jesus and is really not up for debate: Go and make disciples. Why every church feels compelled to find a new way to say this, I’ll never know.

We should not think of this as the mission of the church (although it is). This is the mission of Christ-followers. If I am a disciple of Jesus, this is the mission of my life. This is also the mission of our technical team. Our team exists to make disciples. How we do that may be very different than the Children’s ministry (for example, but maybe not), but if we lose sight of this goal, we are in trouble.

Our Story

Our story is the pool of shared meaning that makes us a tribe. I rate this higher than vision because without this, vision has no legs to stand on.

For example, if our mission as a church is to go and make disciples, it’s pretty important that we have a common definition of the word disciple.
Consider the etymology of the word “disciple” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
In Latin, the word discipulus, means “pupil, student, or follower”, from a root meaning “to take, accept”.
In Old English it gets interesting. A disciple of Christ was referred to as a thane (or thegn) which literally means a “military follower, one who holds lands in exchange for military service”. Other ideas in the word thegn include, “vassal, follower, warrior, descendant” (that last meaning coming to English from the Greek tekos or child).

That is plenty of information to chew on and I’m really not going to here. The point I’m making is that even though making disciples is the foundational thing we do as a Christ-followers, we do not even have a shared pool of meaning on this most basic concept.

We have 30–40 minutes every week (called a sermon) where the pool of shared meaning is developed. But make no mistake, a pool of shared meaning is not effectively developed in a lecture. In fact, as the book Crucial Conversations points out, until you hear everyone’s story, there is no chance for a shared story.

You cannot create a pool of shared meaning unless you are listening.

When our current church service style was developed during the Reformation, there probably was a shared pool of meaning (given the culture in the Middle Ages). How ridiculous to keep hammering that nail as if that’s still the case. Alas, that is for another day. But don’t make the mistake of modeling your technical team’s fellowship/huddle/debrief/gathering after a church service. Yuck!

I hope the point is clear—we are only a church community to the degree that we have a shared story. We are only truly a technical team to the degree that we have a shared pool of meaning.

Accountability

Who’s answerable? and to whom?

Nothing is accomplished without accountability. This is not business speak, this is Gospel.

In Matthew 25, in the middle of a group of parables about the end of the age, we read Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. There will be an accounting. You will have to answer for what you have done in the Kingdom.

In my opinion, the number one thing I see killing effectiveness in churches, and in technical teams, is lack of accountability. Where you see the same mistakes over and over again, or deep seated problems that stubbornly refuse to be addressed, that’s lack of accountability.

Accountability cannot exist without proper accounting practices; in other words, an absence of accounting means an absence of accountability.
Wikipedia

A system of accounting is necessary for accountability. A system of accounting is specific questions that must be answered by a specific person. If you cannot point to that system, you are not operating with accountability. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

As a leader, it is your job to create that system. Unfortunately, some people think this is about aggressively confronting mistakes. It’s not. Even in accountability, the mission is still discipleship.

A disciple-making culture allows people to make mistakes, learn, and grow—but also makes them answer for their behavior. It looks different for each person. That’s why we say it is an organic process. Discipleship is not something that can be standardized and mechanized so our system of accounting must be organic as well.

It sounds simple, but is challenging. Accountability is a time black hole.

Vision

And finally we get to vision. What the future could look like flows out of the mission and is dependent on our story. But it must move on to a strategy and system of accountability or it has no life. Vision has no power on it’s own. While it is composed of mission and story, it is also dependent on strategy and accountability.

I kept this last for a reason.
Without a shared pool of meaning, any talk of vision is simply noise.
Without a system of accountability, any implementation of vision is merely wishful thinking.

I’m not going to say any more about vision because it is already eating up all the oxygen in the room.

Conclusion

What we often call a lack of vision is actually a lack of a shared story or shared pool of meaning. We will only have a shared pool of meaning if we are willing to have crucial conversations; and, as the book points out, having these conversations is one of the hardest things we do.

When our teams are not in alignment, vision is probably not to blame as much as our failure to implement a clear strategy with a system of accountability. Consistency is very hard and it’s much easier to look the other way. Unless we are willing to invest in people as individuals and walk them through a process that forces them to be answerable and responsible for their behavior, we are failing at this critical task.

These two principles are incredibly challenging and where the real, hard work gets done.

It’s much easier to come up with a sentence or two of a cleverly crafted vision statement.**

That’s why your vision is the problem.


 

Footnotes
* After reading this over a day later, I realize I should have developed strategy as a key element. Strategy and tactics are the implementation of vision. The how to vision’s what.
Accountability always points back to strategy and tactics.
To my thinking the proper, and crucial, order is this:
Mission, Story, Vision, Strategy, Tactics, Accountability
What I hoped to highlight in this post was the ongoing, difficult work of story and accountability that are mission critical.

** The potential pitfall is to think that we can unleash a vision onto the world (set it free like a bird, so to speak), and it will magically do the work by uniting everyone behind a single purpose and inspiring them to make it happen. This is wrong for two reasons.
1. Vision doesn’t unite, it divides. The clearer the vision, the more it creates uniqueness. Clear vision gets the right people on the bus, and it also gets the wrong people off the bus. Said another way: vision leads to acceptance and rejection. Both should be expected.
2. Inspiration is about feelings. Feelings don’t work. Behavior works. When we stand before God on judgment day, the way we felt about stuff won’t matter. He’s interested in our behavior.
How you feel  about the vision is meaningless. What you do about it matters very much. Vision is a thing, for sure, but it’s not the thing.

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