What’s your purpose? Developing a team vision

Talking about vision and purpose is the kind of thing that elicits almost audible eye-rolling, and with good reason. We’ve all been a part of staff meetings, reviews, and planning days where we’ve been told we’re going to “write the vision for the next five years” or “define our mission”. Here’s how that typically plays out:

  1. Gather all of the staff in one room. Provide bowls of Mentos, a stack of post-its, and some felt-tip pens.
  2. Write the word MISSION, PURPOSE or VISION on a whiteboard. Don’t worry about which word: for this activity they’re basically interchangeable.
  3. Ask this provocative question: “What are we?” Or try “What do we want to be?”
  4. Provide 3 minutes for staff to write their favourite words on post-its.
  5. Stick all post-its to the whiteboard. Group post-its based on synonyms. Choose your favourite. Vote, if it’s a democracy you’re looking for.
  6. Compile your favourite words into a sentence. Here are a few examples:

We are an exciting and engaged team of thought-leaders who provide quality educational outcomes to all students.

We will create opportunities for students to be lifelong learners in an education architecture designed to innovate and extend for the future.

We are undisputed educational leaders providing competitive high-quality education to the students we serve through our innovative approach to education.

OK, I’m being glib. But I’ve had enough conversations with teachers and school leaders to know that these examples aren’t too far from the truth. At best, these kinds of exercise produce a forgettable jumble of adjectives that will end up lost in some infrequently visited page on the website. At worst, they waste an enormous amount of time and energy that could be spent more productively.  

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Why bother with vision?

Let’s come back to the point. Creating a vision – for a school or a team within the school – should be a valuable exercise. Clarity of vision provides everyone on the team with a destination. It allows team members to develop autonomy by testing their ideas against a shared goal. First, let’s define a few terms:

Purpose: Why you do what you do

Vision: What that will look like in your ideal world

Mission: How you’ll get there

There are many different definitions and uses of these words. Depending on which book you read on strategy, which consultant you hire to help your team, or which podcast you listen to, it can be very confusing to articulate the differences between words like purpose, mission, vision, strategy, goals, and objectives. Here, I’m focusing on vision, and I’m going to write about a specific type of vision.

Vivid Visions

Recently, I’ve been working with the fantastic team of Middle School English leaders and teachers at Haileybury. Since mid-2021, we’ve been working towards a shared vision for the faculty, something to help define what the future of English looks like.

We have been using an approach called ‘vivid visions’, adapted from a book by Cameron Herold. It involves asking a series of questions to each team member about what the team will look like in three to five years’ time. Each team member must address these questions in a short, first person, present-tense paragraph that takes place in this imaginary ideal future.

Here are some of my examples:

Example questions:

  • What does the faculty look like?
  • What are the students doing?
  • What are you doing?
  • What are your faculty members doing?
  • What are your metrics or KPIs?
  • What do meetings look like?

Example paragraph responses:

I walk around the shared library space and see students reading for pleasure, or using the time to work on their own writing. English classrooms have a blend of modern technology and traditional features, with wireless screens and shelves full of books. I am teaching a unit in which students are working on a book of their choice, developing reading skills in line with our faculty’s custom-built curriculum. At the end of the day, our faculty meeting is divided into smaller teams, and each team works on its own action research project.

The students are working with an author in a workshop designed to inspire creative writing. The author has been in residence for the term, working around all of the classes. A few students have opted out and are instead working on their own blogs and articles, which they regularly publish online. We’ve stopped measuring our performance against NAPLAN and VCE, and instead take regular measurements of student engagement and hold focus groups with students and parents about what they need.

Once the team’s short statements have been collated, it’s the job of the team leader to compile them into a single page vision statement. Firstly, the team leader pulls out some of the key desires, as follows:

  • Students have access to reading materials in and out of class
  • Students have access to technology
  • Students have a say in what they study
  • Students have access to authors and ‘real-world’ English
  • Performance is measured through engagement and student/parent voice
  • Meetings are formed around action-research projects and lead by team members

The team leader then writes a single page vision statement, again in first-person, present tense, through the eyes of a team member walking around the organisation in three to five years’ time.

…Students are reading everywhere – in the library, in classrooms, around the campus. We have been monitoring student engagement through surveys and interviews, and attitudes towards reading and writing have been steadily increasing. In the seminar room, an author is giving a talk to a small group of students who are working on an anthology of stories. Our students and our teachers regularly publish their own writing online and in print…

Compare the above extract to one of the vague statements often derived from the ‘post-it approach’. If you can’t close your eyes and imagine what the future looks like, then you don’t have a clear vision. Developing a vision like this encourages team members to visualise not just what the future looks like, but to think of ways to get there. What do we need to do now, so that this is the reality in three years’ time?

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