It’s pretty common for a vision to face condescension. Visioning can seem like a feel-good exercise that paints a rosy scenario, and you’ll hear people lament that it accomplishes little if anything meaningful. But it doesn’t need to be that way. There are ways to avoid common missteps that prevent community visions, or their more expensive regional vision brethren, from becoming irrelevant and wasteful exercises in civic booster-ism.
I think there are five keys to a successful community vision. By successful, I mean the vision is endorsed or adopted by the relevant governing board or boards, and it is effectively integrated into the organization’s operating procedures. It will have measurable objectives and targets defined, milestones for achieving them, responsibilities assigned and resources allocated to appropriate individuals, departments or organizations, and a mechanism for regular reporting of progress toward achieving the vision. To get there, a vision needs broad-based community support and it must tell an effective story about the neighborhood, community or region and where it wants to go. Here’s how:
Threats, challenges and opportunities need to come into sharp focus in the minds of the broader public and key community stakeholders. Where are the community conflicts? Why is it conflicted? Who are the actors in the conflict and what are their real motivations? It is imperative to make sure there is an increased awareness of the issues and trade-offs of doing nothing and doing something (or things). Visioning efforts often address the questions of Where are we now and Where are we going as the basis for helping people see the implications of past and present decisions on the future. Most importantly, you simply must have a keen awareness of the shared values in the community and how they can serve as a foundation for a future vision.
You have to be real to know values. The only way to build trust and establish credibility with a vision process is to go the extra mile to demonstrate a commitment to learning about the community and relating the work on the vision to the needs expressed by the community. In the East Gainesville, FL minority neighborhoods, I held front porch meetings over sweet tea with residents concerned that prior planning efforts focused on other parts of the city. In Sanford, a community raw with racial tension over the Trayvon Martin incident, I spent several hours talking with people in the Historic Goldsboro neighborhood about ways to better their neighborhood at a Saturday morning community event celebrating the work of Dr. Velma Williams, the onlyAfrican American ever elected in Seminole County.
Pretty pictures certainly intrigue and inspire, but a successful vision is based on relevant analysis exploring alternatives and trade-offs. To be relevant, the analysis needs to relate to values of the community and sources of conflict. Perhaps use performance measures that the community helps to select. What are the implications of doing nothing or taking a specific action? What kinds of information do the public, community leaders and elected officials need to get comfortable with a concept or to make a decision?
A vision has to be a dynamic process. Having a work plan or scope is important, but you can’t be bound by the plan when circumstances dictate a change in methods or direction. Adapting to issues and responding quickly to new ideas or different actors engaging at different times shows that you are listening effectively and have the pulse of the community. The challenge is avoiding losing focus on outcomes by constantly responding or adjusting methods. But the greater risk is to hold to a work plan or a preconceived set of recommendations and lose credibility by not being responsive.
Developing and carrying out a vision takes time, and people have the attention span of a...well...modern Internet consumer. The vision may be long range in nature, but it must include at least two specific, meaningful actions that can occur with the flip of a switch once adopted. In fact, if the vision has a branding name like "envision" or "imagine," change the name to "destination" or "forward [insert name here]." This is necessary to show a distrustful and perhaps jaded public that there is commitment to the vision and a sincere desire for change. But the accomplishments can’t stop there. On a regular basis, say every year or two, there needs to be a highly visible public accounting of progress, results achieved and adjustments made to fulfill the vision. Even incremental responses and partial solutions should get some love. Pat yourself on the back for minute, acknowledge the kudos, and then move on to the next task.