University: creating a vision

Leadership development texts often refer to the importance of vision – having a vision, constructing a vision and the communication of the vision. But what is a vision, and how important is it to have one?

A vision is some description of a future state. In terms of planning for development, it is anticipated that the vision will be aspirational. Aspirational enough to stretch the object being developed, without demoralising if the aspiration is too ambitious.

Successful communication of the vision is of utmost importance. Many a realistic vision has been left stranded by poor communication – the enablers of the vision, those who will follow your ‘North Star’, either misunderstood the message, or just “didn’t get it”.

This can be disastrous and is a scenario we shall work systematically to avoid. If your vision is clear, and repeated often, the work to be done will follow logically and performance improvements will be witnessed.

So where do we start?

If a critical success factor of a vision is how it is communicated, then we need to ensure that:

  • The recipients understand and can visualise the future state that you are describing. This means that it needs to be described using their language – the language of the industry they work in, using day-to-day expressions and statements particular to the domain;
  • There are obvious and explicit items to measure progress against. Everybody likes to see progress, and when we are in the thick of it, we can sometimes lose sight of the overall goals. A clear vision identifies the ‘big picture’ in terms of key measures, and serves to remind us of the importance of persisting to realise the vision rather than getting caught-up in the daily complexity of life.

The importance of communicating a vision is fundamental to the effective delegation of objectives to staff. If they interpret a different vision, you’ll get a sustained effort that works against you. Vision creation can be a powerful force.

Reflection: When was the last time (if ever) that you sat down and described what you wanted from your professional life? Your personal life? Both?

To ensure that a vision is relevant to your domain, then you will need to consider:

  • Your external working environment. What measures are the standard for the industry? What are the benchmarks that you will be exceeding?
  • Your internal environment. How aligned are you with the internal processes/culture? Where does the agency for successful change lie within the institution?

Successful completion of the Definition component highlights data that is missing and prompts additional activity to fill the gap. Thus ADVANCE is rarely a treated as a linear process in which we pass through each stage once only. Rather it should be seen as a model that prompts refinement and iteration.

If some information is lacking from the vision, we need to return to the definition component. Inevitably, some aspects will reveal insight that may improve the definition of another component. This is to be expected, embraced and ultimately, exploited for maximum benefit.

Aspirational, but realistic

This is a common concern, especially if you have little or no prior experience of vision construction. It is important to rely on the data you have collected. The fact that you have done this as part of Definition will substantially increase your chances of success.

Why quote a 20% increase in applications when the market median is 12%? 

Such a statement may be too aspirational. Conversely, a 5% increase maybe judged as too conservative, or too risk-averse. This will propagate silent messages that will sabotage your vision from the outset – people want to be led, not constrained.

You should also consider the number of items that you will need to describe your future state. It is surprising how many of my coachees dive in and create a list of a dozen or so items to measure. This is symptomatic of a directive management mind-set, and needs to be reconsidered when approaching the construction of a vision. My question to them is simple:

“What successes is your market leader known for?” 

After some initial, irrelevant detail, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a much shorter list of items that are important. This list might have between 3-5 crucial measures, that really make the market leader stay out in front of the rest.

Reflection: Which institution/department would you regard as a market leader? What are your reasons for this judgement?

From your earlier data gathering work, you will have no doubt read the vision statements of other universities. Whilst there will be differences, you will have seen a lot of similarity.

And so, you might say, what is the point of a vision that is common across most of the sector, if not across industry as a whole? After all, don’t we all want to “offer the best student employment opportunities” and “attract world-class academic staff”?

Of course we do. But the realisation of this vision is specific to an organisation, and therefore the operational objectives that achieve the vision will vary from university to university.

A vision needs to be sufficiently abstract and concise to enable it to be repeated until it is completely embedded within the organisation, so that it can be recalled and referred to during daily work.

Therefore, the vision should be seen as much more than just a brief articulation of a future state. It needs substantiating with a set of objectives that can be measured.

These two components – the future state, together with the list of objectives in a narrative – make up the output of the Vision component of ADVANCE.

Getting started

Unless you have been thinking and talking about it for some time, the construction of a vision tends to be mostly a cyclical process.  We need to understand our desire for aspiration if we are to specify sufficiently stretching objectives.

We need to understand the measures if our vision is to be realistic.

During many workshops I have witnessed a combination of approaches to vision construction. Some senior managers make bold statements in relation to a burning issue for their organisation, and this becomes the focal point. Relevant measures in the industry drive the construction of the Vision statement.

Other situations (typically in public sector and educational leadership settings) bring forth aspirational statements that require subsequent translation into measures that are relevant to the sector. One example is that of ‘reputation’. “How can my educational institution improve its research reputation?”

Another way of thinking about a vision is to imagine how the objectives will actually be realised through management activities. Some leaders ignore this, maintaining a clear separation between the leadership and management concepts, concentrating on the ‘what’ and ‘why’, rather than the ‘how’ and ‘who’. 

However, leaders that consider how their managers will delegate, can also gain some insight into the culture of their organisation. A by-product of vision construction is the realisation that an organisation is too heavily micro-managed, and that traits of leadership such as autonomy and empowerment, need more emphasis during the working day.

This has substantial implications for the organisation as a whole, and may, in fact warrant a clear steer from the vision statement and objectives that a culture change is required and has to happen. Of course, this can be challenging to measure, but itself is an example of how a vision can actually become specific to its target environment.

Such a public declaration of the need to change fundamentally can also be a powerful statement that important issues will be tackled head-on. This helps those who require reassurance whilst realising the vision, as well as clearly identifying those staff who are likely to experience difficulties fitting into the future state.

Process-led vision creation

One situation that HEI managers can find themselves in the middle of, is having the responsibility to transform the performance of an academic unit within an institution.

This requires some appreciation that an overall institutional vision will exist, and therefore if you are to use a more tailored, local vision to help lead the necessary adjustments, it is important that explicit linkages are visible between the two vision statements.

However, if your current institutional vision is not clear, or it is undergoing consultation and review, then you may need to prepare for more than one potential vision for your department.

For instance, your institution might have signified that it wishes to ‘change mission’ in order to become financially stable.

This might be achieved by an outlook that is more enterprising; however, a HEI, or a department within an institution can be enterprising in many different ways, from adopting a more commercial approach to direct engagement with the business community, through to the expansion of the teaching business into new markets (international, franchising, e-learning, etc.).

The process of gathering data and performing some basic analysis as described in the Definition component will no doubt have strengthened the perspective you hold in relation to what potential can be achieved.

But it’s also important to remember that your colleagues will probably not have completed the same exercise, and in many cases they will have no interest in doing so.

One way to address this is by involving staff in the process of using data as early as possible, with a view to building a culture that naturally produces and consumes data for the purposes of continuous improvement.

As a leader you need to translate the aims of the institution into operational plans, and in doing so describe work that is meaningful to the recipient. They need to understand what is required, if the vision is to be realised.

In such circumstances, vision creation requires a process that should be focused upon the development of academic staff. It should be designed to align operational activities to strategic objectives, by making clear, negotiated declarations of what is to be achieved over a given period, and then taking an evidence based approach to evaluate the results.

Briefly, the key principles are that the process is:

  • Focused upon development;
  • Outcomes are negotiated and agreed at the outset;
  • Individuals are held to account;
  • Judgements are based on evidence.

The first step is to understand what operational targets are relevant for your vision.

Declaring the targets

At this point, let’s assume that there is a vision in place. There needs to be some aspirational, future state that you can link operational targets to. This will provide the ‘story’ that staff can relate to, and as a result be able to identify their developmental needs.

To help describe this process, we shall make use of an example. You may choose to keep a pen and some paper to hand, to make notes as you go along. This will make it much easier when you repeat the exercise with your own data.

We are going to start with the vision statement and measures profile:

“The department will have an international reputation for the high-quality provision of teaching and research, to prepare graduates for professional careers.

It will attract highly qualified academic staff with international esteem, and be recognised as a leading contributor to educational, research and industrial partnerships.

Significant social and economic impact will be delivered by cultivating industrial projects to sustain a diverse set of income streams.

The vision will be achieved by:

  • Delivering a high-quality portfolio that is relevant to the needs of industry;
  • Creating a student experience that beats the sector median;
  • Developing peer credibility amongst academic staff by increasing external activities;
  • Creating and disseminating knowledge for social and economic benefit, both regionally and nationally.”

Measures profile:

Performance Indicator

Present

5 years from now

Income

90% Teaching

8% Research

2% Other

78% Teaching

10% Research

12% Other

Graduate employability

65%

85%

Student satisfaction

Bottom quartile

(25th percentile)

> Median

(50th percentile or above)

From the brief details above, there are some clear targets for the department to achieve, which are described as part of the ‘measures profile’. These are operational targets which are measurable, and have a timeline in which they are to be achieved (5 years).

But what about the text of the vision statement? Some interesting phrases include:

  • “international reputation for the high-quality provision of teaching and research”;
  • “to prepare graduates for professional careers”;
  • “attract highly qualified academic staff with international esteem”;
  • “recognised as a leading contributor to educational, research and industrial partnerships”;
  • “significant social and economic impact”;
  • “cultivating industrial projects”;
  • “sustain a diverse set of income streams”.

For a moment, think ahead to the future. You have successfully achieved the required transformation, by proactively managing the performance of your staff.

How will you evidence the achievements, beyond the simple measures of income profile, NSS and league table position?

What evidence would satisfy you of someone’s claim that they had established an international reputation in teaching?

You might be interested in the amount of funded pedagogic research they have generated, or the number of peer-reviewed research articles that they have published.

There might be evidence of close engagement with an international institution. An individual may represent the views of other academics as a member of an international panel of experts.

In short, there are numerous ways in which engagement with an activity can help realise the collective achievement of an institutional/departmental target.

What is particularly important with academic staff, is the need to identify activities that relate to their work, in the way that they perform their work. Academic staff, in general, tend to resist micro-management, and can often be reluctant to engage with institutional targets.

However, the translation of operational targets into relevant academic activities can be productive in terms of performance management.

Here are some more examples of potential academic activities that could support realisation of the vision statement:

  • international reputation for the high-quality provision of teaching and research;
  • to prepare graduates for professional careers – proportion of students employed within 12 months of graduation;
  • attract highly qualified academic staff with international esteem;
    • Proportion of staff that hold research qualifications;
    • Proportion of staff that are active researchers;
    • Number of peer-reviewed articles published per head;
  • recognised as a leading contributor to educational, research and industrial partnerships;
    • Proportion of total income from funding grants/commercial projects/consulting arrangements/intellectual property licensing;
  • significant social and economic impact;
    • Number of projects with voluntary sector;
  • cultivating industrial projects;
    • Number of projects solicited per annum;
    • Total income received per annum from industrial projects;
  • sustain a diverse set of income streams;
    • Percentage mix of recurrent teaching and research income, commercial research income, industrial projects and other income.

Reflection: How many of these could your staff successfully engage with tomorrow?

This stage can be both exciting and sobering. You will see the potential of some staff that is not being fully utilised, but you may also realise that your vision is potentially not achievable with the current resources.

However, after considering the operational activities that could feed into a vision, you might also discover that different activities help you achieve your vision anyway.

Reflection: With support and development, what could be realised over the next twelve months? The next five years?

Thinking even further into the future can give an added check as to the realism of a vision. You don’t need to forecast an entire set of staff development plans for the department, but you could identify whether your vision will be achieved solely through staff development, or whether new staff will need recruiting.

If you are creating a vision for a departmental transformation, then it is wise to look at the student enrolment projections which should come from the central planning unit at the same time, as significant growth may affect your plans.

Exercise

Using the data that you have collected so far, construct a vision statement and measures profile for your own situation. Remember that you now have:

  • Data from the Awareness component; some description of the current state relating to the internal assessment of the organisational unit/individual staff member, etc. For a department you will know what proportion of staff hours are spent on teaching, research and administration for instance.
  • Data from the Definition component; you will have gathered external data that enables the position of the object that will be the subject of the transformation. For example, you will have data from the relevant league tables, student survey data that is reported externally, research assessments, etc.

Usually, when then the data is brought together, a more holistic picture forms. You begin to understand the character of the department, but you also begin to have a more informed view of your competitors since you are looking at their data as well in the Definition component.

Additionally, you will no longer be constrained by the measures that your HEI currently uses to measure performance. In the example above, the “proportion of staff hours … spent on teaching, research and administration” is described.

You might decide that this, in conjunction with a financial income profile, may be the most concise means of reporting progress towards your vision. 

Once you have constructed a vision and measures profile from the data you have collected, you are in a much better position to argue for its inclusion in your reporting.

Don’t worry if you find that you need some more data to proceed. If that is the case, at least you know what to ask for!

The mere observation that data is missing indicates that you have a need for it to satisfy and justify the vision that you are creating. Remember that you will spend a lot of time talking about your vision, so it is important that it’s based on a solid footing of data.

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