The Power of Visioning

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
originally written for Specialty Food Magazine, October 2008

In a previous article, Why and How Visioning Works, I wrote about how the process of visioning which, as we define it at Zingerman’s, is a picture of the success of a project at a particular time in the future. I noted that a vision isn’t a strategic plan—which is the map to where we want to go. A vision is the actual destination. It’s a vivid description of what “success” looks and feels like for us—what we are able to achieve, and the effect it has on our staff. The results of practicing visioning for many years have been remarkable on both a professional and personal level. It’s helped us create a success that may not have been possible without the vision.

If you haven’t read about this concept before I strongly recommend you read the the previous article to understand the benefits of this process. This article focuses on the actual writing of the vision with steps for getting it down quickly and effectively.

Step 1: Pick Your Topic

Visioning is appropriate for projects of all sizes and every budget. We use it for creating goals for a project that will be done in five months, a dinner special that will be on the menu at 5 p.m. or big business changes that we want to achieve in five years.

Step 2: Pick the Time Frame

Most organizational visions will be somewhere between two and ten years out. Five is a fairly typical place to start. But if you are wanting to start with a smaller project, the time frame can be one week or six months.

Step 3: Quickly List Achievements

Think about the work you’re embarking on and quickly list past, positive achievements that seem related to it. Don’t spend more than ten minutes on this, you can always add more. The idea is to create a base of positive energy on which you can build success. The more people put their energy into the positive, the more likely we are to attain greatness in the visions of the future we’re engaged in creating.

Step 4: Rules for Writing the Vision

Give yourself somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes to complete the first draft. While writing a vision is hugely important, don’t let its perceived weight work against you. The results will be great regardless.

You can compose your vision in any style you like, but I want to emphasize the importance of putting the word “draft” on your document. Unless you’re writing a vision for a shift that starts in a few minutes, what you’re working on is going to get revised as you gather input from others. That said, there are a few rules to follow that really do work. If you find yourself rolling your eyes at them, I can relate because I did the same once upon a time. But I’ve done this so many times now that I can tell you flat out—if you use these, the whole thing works way better.

A) Go for something great.

The work here is about writing visions of greatness—if we don’t describe something special in the first draft, it’s not likely to get more inspiring later. Put something wild out there—I like to think about John Kennedy’s call to go to the moon; that was out there. If the early draft isn’t kind of scaring you a bit (or at least won’t scare the practical minded amongst your peer group) then you probably haven’t pushed yourself or let out your true desires.

B) Write from the heart.

A vision of greatness is about your passion and hopes for the future. If you’re the one writing it, it’s about what you believe in, what gets you excited. Even if it includes things that others have said you couldn’t or shouldn’t do.

C) Send yourself to the future.

This may sound silly, but from having done visioning work a few thousand times, I can tell you that it’s essential—write as if you’ve achieved your goal already. For example, if you’re writing a vision of a wedding you’re catering this Saturday, you might start out with: “It’s a few minutes before midnight on Saturday night. The bride and groom just headed for home, the rest of the family members are lingering. Everyone is tired, but feeling really good about the event . . .” Again, this may seem strange, but it is critical. You are always writing “we have” or &l>dquo;we are,” not “we will.”

D) Write very quickly.

In my experience, the visions that we’ve written quickly have turned out the best. So start writing. Don’t wait until the stars are perfectly aligned.

E) Use the “hot pen” technique.

Once you start writing, keep writing for 15 minutes regardless of what you’re saying or how silly or smart it might seem. Keep the pen or keys on the keyboard moving and don’t stop to self-edit. My own experience is that sometimes the most important/insightful elements of the vision are the ones that I almost didn’t write down.

F) Don’t be afraid to get personal.

Blend both personal and professional goals so that you arrive at one holistic vision or two visions (one personal and one for the organization) that are compatible and mutually supportive. If you’re running the business it makes sense that you build your passions into what you write. If you want to teach, put that in the vision. Weave in what you want to do, what gets you excited, motivated.

Step 5: Write the First Draft of the Vision 

With all of those rules in mind, put down a vision draft. (See an example of a small project vision in the sidebar.) We usually start by writing: “It’s (fill in the date you’ve chosen above). I’m about to head out for the evening. There are so many great things that are going on that make it clear that our long-term vision has come to be the reality that we hoped and believed it would back when we wrote it.” Start listing what they are and just keep going until your time is up. Then put the draft aside for several days. (Obviously if you have to get it done sooner, adjust the time frame appropriately.)

Step 6: Review and Redraft

Read the statement from start to finish. My experience is that 80 or 90 percent of what I put down in that first scary rendition is right on track, but I can still work on both the content and the language. As you read through it, keep in the back of your mind: Does it sound inspiring? Do you get more excited when you’re reading it? Note that in this context, “excited” does not preclude anxiety about how to actually implement it. For some of us, the two almost always go together!

How specific should you get in your writing? Very. Don’t just say, “I want to be wealthy,” give an actual salary number or savings amount. Use a sales number that’s meaningful rather than just saying, “I want high profits.” If it is a personal goal, say, “I’m spending two weeks traveling with my kids,” rather than, “I’m spending more time with my children.” If necessary you can have up to four redrafts, but that’s the most I’d recommend.

If you aren’t the sole decision-maker, it is critical to make sure that all of the key people are on board with the vision. Without that alignment, it’s almost impossible to move forward effectively. One technique we use is to set a topic and time frame for the vision and then have each of the partners in the group draft their own vision. Once that is done, we compare the written vision drafts, combine common
themes and move forward.

Step 7: Get Input from Advisers

This is when you ask people whose opinion you value to review the draft. The idea is to keep improving it and get clarity on what you mean and what it says. You can start by asking more supportive readers and then later move to more challenging ones. Remember, at this stage, most input can be helpful although you aren’t obligated to use everything that is offered up.

Step 8: Get Going!

It’s time to move forward and share the vision with everyone that will be involved in implementing it. Having a vision of greatness in writing certainly doesn’t guarantee success, nor does not having a written vision mean you’re doomed to failure. But a vision sets us up to work together toward a shared, inspiring, attainable (if also challenging) positive picture of the future.

Take it from someone who came at this all with a fair degree of skepticism and uncertainty, and resisted doing it for many years—in the end, it’s worth the effort. It’s a way more inspiring way to do business and it’s a heck of a lot more fun.