Define What You Mean: Reframing the “Clear Vision” Problem

by | Nov 1, 2021

When tasked with implementing change in your organization, you may have found yourself in this position: The goal of change has been shared, presented, and discussed repeatedly. Yet you keep hearing the claim, “We need a clear vision of what we are moving toward.”
This is another classic consulting situation and it presents itself as a problem of definition. For instance, how do you define the difference between change and transformation?
How do you define leadership, empowerment, the new economy, or the role of a middle manager?
What is the new role for human resources?
But for all the clamor about wanting definitions, many times what is truly murky is the question, not so much the answers. This is an indicator that you need to reframe the issue at hand in order to get to the root. Let’s look at some thoughts on how to reframe the “clear vision” problem.

If You Acted On This Definition

Taking the “clear vision” complaint at face value, you would spend a lot of time trying to define what is new in terms that people will understand. You would write it down. You would produce manuals and short brochures written in “lay terms” to describe that which is essentially a change in consciousness. Then, the ultimate attempt at creating definition is the competency model: a comprehensive listing of the skills needed to be fully proficient at a job or role. Have you ever seen one that any human being could achieve?

Reframing The “Clear Vision” Problem

To reframe the clear vision problem, you need to see that the request for definition is often not a problem of clarity, but an expression of disagreement.
It is fine to make one attempt at definition. But most of the time we have already done that, and yet the question persists. In this case, the thing to focus on is the request for us to define the term. If a definition is necessary, then what if you let those who ask the questions struggle with the answer for themselves?

confused dog seemingly without a clear vision

What if the request for clear vision has to do with roles? For years middle managers have wanted to know what their new role is. Well, after all this time, if they can’t figure it out, maybe there is no new role. The principle here is that you (as the questioner) have to translate language into your own setting and into your own experience. Sure, others can help a little, but they cannot do it for you.

Learning Clarity Through Ambiguity

Dennis Bakke, head of AES, a very enlightened company that produces electrical power around the world, likes ambiguity in language. He says that if people are unclear about what something means it forces them into a conversation about it, and that conversation leads to learning. Hearing a definition from another leads to memorization, not learning. The only definition that endures is the one that I myself have created.
If people are unclear about what something means it forces them into a conversation about it, and that conversation leads to learning.
Lastly, in this situation, it is important to realize that the wish for a clear vision is another form of the wish for safety. It is the desire to know where you are going before you go there. It is a desire for measurable, controlled outcomes. Ultimately, it is a longing for safety that does not truly exist.
In the end, defining terms is an academic diversion from the more fundamental human questions involving risk, purpose, courage, and adventure. But here is the thing: real safety comes from the experience of discovery, acting in the face of your fears–not waiting to act until your fears have disappeared. It is not until you try something that you will realize that you will survive it.

So To Act In This New Frame For Clear Vision:

  1. Realize that persistent requests for definition are not a lack of clear vision, but an expression of disagreement.
  2. Invite the person asking for the definition to struggle with it for themselves. This leads to conversations in which they will truly learn rather than memorize.
  3. Understand that the desire for a clear definition is masking a desire for safety. But real safety is found in acting in the face of our fears.
[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001, pp. 401-402]

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