Shared Vision

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Stewart Dutfield
Marist College
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project

In any collective enterprise, the participants have diverse goals and points of view. Not everyone will agree that a given course of action is the best available, and the results of collective action may not meet all expectations. Not knowing that they are pursuing dissimilar goals, people may work at cross purposes. Over time, especially where involvement is voluntary, commitment to the enterprise may erode or the group may become less diverse.


Organizations dedicated to a social or environmental issue attract people from diverse backgrounds, with strong feelings and differing levels of experience and interest. Such a group is bound together by the common concerns of a diverse membership, and those who feel underserved within the group may dissipate the efforts of the group or take their energies elsewhere. Building upon and integrating shared concerns into a shared vision helps members to focus their involvement in the group, so as to better orient their energies toward the collective enterprise.


A McKinsey report on nonprofits states that not-for-profit organizations have a special need for a vision as a means to guide their actions and evaluate outcomes. A “compelling, easy-to-understand description of how the nonprofit would like the world to change in the next three-to-five years, what role the organization will play in that change, and how the nonprofit will measure the success of its role” (Kilpatrick & Silverman, 2004, p. 3), the vision should pervade the organization’s activities: an ultimate guide for making decisions and setting goals in alignment with collective values and aspirations.

A vision should express values, purpose, and progress toward a better future. It should be neither too specific nor too general. Detailed goals, though necessary, do not belong in the vision itself; they easily become outdated, either once they are attained or when unforeseen opportunities and unexpected consequences occur. On the other hand, noble sentiments and statements of principle do not always easily translate into action under complex circumstances.

A shared vision should be clear and compelling, aspirational for a better world in the future, and describable in simple terms. It should be capable of being understood as a common purpose, and of acting as a guideline for evaluating decisions and outcomes on a continuing basis. Nanus (1992) recommends that a vision be challenging but realistic, and developed by people throughout the organization.

The content of a shared vision is less important than the life it brings to the organization. Peter Senge quotes Robert Fritz that "It's not what the vision is, it's what the vision does." (Scharmer, 1996, para. 30). A shared vision comes from the individual visions of group members; it becomes a force for action through the process of becoming shared. The difference between the shared vision and current reality should generate energy for change. Through its use, a shared vision should ensure that strategic decisions and specific goals are aligned with the organization’s values.

To provide both accountability and allegiance to collective values and goals, a vision must be successfully put into practice. According to Etienne Wenger, "One can design visions, but one cannot design the allegiance necessary to align energies behind those visions." (1998, p. 229); members’ allegiance can, however, be encouraged in the way a group or organization enacts a shared vision—how its members live out their accountability to collective values and goals. One way to promote allegiance to a vision is to use and communicate it constantly; another is to promote behavior, both inside and outside the organization, which is consistent with the vision.

A shared vision lives constantly in tension with fast-changing and unpredictable circumstances. To pursue a vision while ignoring what is practical and relevant cannot sustain an organization, yet the vision is an essential guide to action through a succession of new circumstances and possibilities. Brinckerhoff (2003) believes that not-for-profit organizations should respond flexibly to external demands, while remaining in alignment with the collective purpose. By maintaining the shared vision, an organization learns not only how to do better, but also what better to do; “The world changes, and so must the vision.” (Nanus, 1992, p. 20).

A shared vision helps to guide an individual project with specific tasks and finite lifespan (Christenson & Walker, 2004). Developed in conjunction with stakeholders both within and outside the project members (for example, developers, funders, and the community at large), it helps people make sense of the project plan and their contributions to it. An easily understood, inspiring, credible and challenging vision can create and sustain the alignment of members’ energies, their enthusiasm and allegiance to the group, and their accountability to shared values and specific goals.

When a community or civic project first begins, participants may be highly enthusiastic, each with a strong conception of what the project should be. It is tempting to jump right in and assume that everybody shares the same vision. Proceeding from this ambiguous and contradictory beginning may lead to division and hard feelings within the group, and to unsound early decisions that become "built-in" to the system.

Developing a shared vision may be the single most important task for the group to accomplish at the outset. Developing shared perspectives on both the vision and the process for enacting it are indispensable for success. Good communication is essential; face-to-face group meetings, brainstorming and other methods of envisioning a collective future provide a forum for dialogue which e-mail, for example, can not address adequately.

Steve Cisler suggests the use of a spoked circle as a graphical decision aid to fine-tuning the vision. The circle represents the "space" of decisions and goals, and the endpoints of the spokes represent the two possible extremes of each decision. Cisler (1994) shows an example of the spoked-circle used by the Silicon Valley Public Access Link (SV-PAL) Project. The upright spoke, for example, might be labeled "architecture" and the location of the small circle on the spoke near the "distributed" endpoint depicts the decision to use a distributed architecture instead of a centralized one. A point on the middle of a spoke would indicate an intermediate position between the views represented by the endpoints.

There are no stringent requirements as to how to use the tool. Simply identifying the spokes can be an important first step, as the spokes clearly show which decisions are to be made. It may not be critical to determine the exact location of the spot indicating a decision. In some cases, a group may decide to postpone a decision, but it is a group decision, nevertheless, that ultimately must be made with others in the group. If it hadn't been resolved, for example, whether the network should be free to use or whether there should be fees, the organizers could say, "We're still trying to resolve this. Which approach do you think is best?" The tool can be used as a way to explain compromises or transitional circumstances by showing the current point in relation to the direction along which the developers plan to proceed. For example, when the system is launched it might be deemed necessary to charge users a small fee, but ultimately the system would be expected to be free to use.


Create, communicate, enact and maintain a shared vision. Create the vision early in the life of any collective enterprise; it will guide the actions of the group or organization as a whole, and for individual projects that the group undertakes. Clearly communicate the vision, and use it to guide strategy, decision-making and goal-setting. As circumstances change, be prepared to modify the vision to keep it alive and capable of energizing group members.

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