The following piece gathers together thoughts that have formed over the years but that I’ve never written down in one place. My contention is that putting all these things in place will make projects work better and conversely that where elements are missing there will be problems. I’m old enough to have seen this play out a fair few times!
These thoughts are simple and far from unique but they have helped me reflect and look forward in different settings I’ve been involved in.
Vision is seeing where we want to get to. If we don’t have a sense of what we want to achieve it will hardly be surprising if we don’t achieve very much.
The King James Version of the Bible has a striking verse: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’ (Proverbs 29:18)
A lack of vision demonstrates either a lack of expectation that positive change is possible or an overly optimistic belief that things will just get better over time. It suggests people are on auto-pilot, which reminds me of the saying – if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting. I’ve always thought we can do better – better than the dysfunctional family I grew up in, better than the ugly politics of individualism of my formative years.
Vision is challenging because it requires to people to stop and think. It requires people to be vulnerable, to ask searching questions. It involves the risk of trying something new and failing. The alternative is to settle for just this.
In my opinion vision should be simple – a clearly articulated goal – a sentence short enough that you can remember it. Many years back I had some preaching training. The question posed to me was – if you can’t express your message in a simple phrase how is enough anyone supposed to know what you are saying. Vision is the same – if we can’t express it quickly and simply we don’t yet have a clear idea to pursue. The detail comes later.
So I’m a fan of vision. But not just vision.
Vision without tangible action is pretty much meaningless. It’s a vacuous mission statement. It’s a warm and fuzzy good intention. It’s a pipe dream. That’s why people are cynical about vision.
Vision needs strategy to have any hope of becoming reality. Vision is the what, strategy is the how. Pardon me if this sounds obvious but who hasn’t seen a vision paraded without anything put in place behind it? Vision without strategy is dangerous and damaging because we talk about change without doing anything to achieve it. We stay where we are but worse we are left disappointed and demoralised.
Strategy helps us to start to wrestle big vision into action, it starts to bring shape to the day to day. There is always loads to do, loads we could do, too much to do. Strategy makes us focus and prioritise on what will really make a difference. If your vision is to clean the whole house in a day, you may like the idea of arranging all your books to look neat but in reality you need to get the hoover out first.
Before we launch into anything I suggest we breathe out and start with a blank sheet of paper. Vision is a sentence at the top, strategy is 3-5 simple areas of action to decide where to get started.
The plan is where the detail kicks in. You need the detail but without a clear vision and focussed strategy it’s just a blur of overwhelming activity. Without vision we use our energies badly, we burn out. Without vision there is no hope of a better destination.
The vision should be comprehensible to everyone, the strategy should be pretty easy to grasp but the plan is where you get to the hard work and the complicated stuff. For example I’m no engineer but I know the vision for the Channel Tunnel was a tunnel to connect England and France. I reckon a good communicator would have been able to help me to understand the headline strategy but the detail would have been totally lost on me.
The challenge here is that the vision and strategy bit are quite exciting but then for anything to ever happen there needs to be some discipline to say what’s going to happen, who’s going to do it and by when. Plans have to flex but if there is no plan we can’t be surprised if we don’t see progress or if key things are missed. For me this means writing and re-writing endless plans and lists. I know we are all wired differently but I don’t know how anyone manages if they don’t do this because life is too busy to trust our memory.
The tragedy in the church is when we fail to plan and end up disappointed thinking that God has somehow let us down. If God is giving us vision, we need to then ask – ‘what do you want me/ us to do about this Lord?’ Yes God can do anything he likes but he generally works through us – he has given us time, brains and energy and he asks us to work in partnership with him to use them creatively to make good things happen.
We need the balance of vision and detail – think of it like a newspaper. A newspaper with no headlines gives you no reason to pick it up. A newspaper with nothing but headlines gives you nothing of any substance.
- People to help
The 4th and 5th points are about the people we need around us and the input we need into us. This is where things often fall down – people think they can do everything by themselves but that’s not how we’re made.
Now I’m an introvert. I like people but time on my own is a treat. I’m on my fortnightly non-working day, a day (mostly) to myself to think/ pray/ write/ plan and it is a highlight for me. I can clear my head. I can get things done. It is hugely refreshing for me. However I’ve had to learn about my need for others.
I have always written because I have an instinct to write and I think I can do it well. Unfortunately I have mostly done it badly. For years I was too insecure to share what I wrote and so what I wrote was unrevealed, unrefined and not very good. I needed some help.
I’m getting better about being open about this. For the last couple of years I’ve been thinking about writing fiction something that had been long since abandoned. I’ve shared some tentative ideas, I’ve asked a few people to ask me about what I’m doing. This Father’s day my son bought me a book about thinking through writing projects, which is great. I wish I’d read it 20 years ago but 20 years ago I wasn’t willing to listen.
If we want to get stuff done we are going to have to realise we are not the whole package. God didn’t make us that way, which is inconvenient in churches when we have the bad and unbiblical practice of separating out one person to be it. I believe in leadership but within the context of believing leaders are a part of the church and that every person has a part to play. That means the leader won’t have all the gifts and all the wisdom – their job isn’t to be ‘it’, their job is to draw ‘it’ all together, drawing upon others gifts and wisdom.
- People to be accountable to
Unless we’re talking about very simple tasks where none of this is necessary we can’t do it all alone. That’s not how we’re made and it doesn’t fit the scale of what needs to be changed. Good leaders don’t just need other people to implement their ideas but draw out others skills and insight to inform what needs to happen. This means being willing to listen.
The acceptance we need help and we need to listen requires humility and we all battle against the proud idea that we can fix it all ourselves. Beneath pride is insecurity that we aren’t good enough, that we’ll appear a failure, that everything is going to go wrong.
This cycle of pride and fear can be like a noose with the focus on our ability and inability as we constantly try and fail to fix things. As a teenager and young adult I was defined by my insecurity – it drove me to try and find solutions and to fail over and over again. It took me a long time to realise I was transferring this into my faith and trying to use God to achieve my plans rather than finding out what his were.
So the end point for me about getting things done is seeking accountability – is being willing to have our ideas and plans questioned because as uncomfortable as that often is it allows the flaws to be weeded out, the blind-spots to be highlighted and for the best stuff to come to the fore.
I still believe in change. I can’t imagine a life where I didn’t pursue it but I don’t think it can be achieved in a healthy and sustained way without all of these things being in place. I have suffered too many disappointments to think this stuff is easy but I at least want to see those disappointments turned into learning for the next time round.