You Need a Vision

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If you’ve read the book Alice in Wonderland, you probably remember a scene where Alice, who is lost, asks the Cheshire Cat for directions.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

As an ITSM consultant I frequently come across similar situations. Clients ask me how their process should work, or what tool they should purchase, or what skills their people should develop, and I have to answer, like the Cheshire cat. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”.

The trouble with waterfalls

Many years ago, most IT projects used what is now described as a waterfall approach. All the project requirements were defined and agreed before any other work started, and the IT organization would then spend months or years designing and developing a solution to meet those requirements. This approach often turned out to be highly problematic. Waterfall projects carry costs, but don’t deliver value until they are completed. It’s very hard for customers to define their requirements before they’ve had a chance to try things out, and even if the original requirements are perfect, the needs they were designed to meet have frequently changed before the project ends. The result is that even a well-run project that meets every deadline can fail to deliver the value that was anticipated at the start.  So, most IT organizations I work with now take a more agile approach.  I have described this previously, in my blog Major ITSM Improvements Should Start with Small Steps.

It’s only agile when you have a vision

An agile project starts by defining a vision of where you want to be, and then creates a minimum viable product. This is the smallest, simplest, fastest result that can be put in place to deliver value. Further increments then improve the solution until eventually it achieves a long-term stable state, or is retired in favour of a better solution. I often use a simple diagram to illustrate this. (See Figure 1.)

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Figure 1 - Agile development with a vision

Each sprint builds on what came before to create increasing value for the customer. Value is delivered very fast, and course adjustments are easy to make as feedback from customers and users is used as input to every sprint.

But what happens if, as some organizations do, you forget about creating a vision before you start? Again, I can use a simple diagram to illustrate the consequences. (See Figure 2) 

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Figure 2 - Agile development without a vision

What the diagram shows is an organisation that finds itself engaged in a series of sprints that veer off in many different directions. Without a guiding vision, each sprint seems reasonable at the time, but the results are incoherent. Each sprint takes the organisation in a new direction with no purposeful building of value.

To be truly Agile you must have a vision.

A Vision for Continual Service Improvement

Agile development is not the only time that you need to establish a vision. When you are planning improvements, ITIL recommends that you use a Continual Improvement Approach with the following steps.

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Figure 3 – ITIL Continual Improvement Approach

You can read about continual service improvement in my blogs:

I won’t repeat my general advice about continual service improvement here, but the point I want to make today is that the very first step of the CSI approach is to understand, or define, the vision. Without a vision your continual improvement will stagger along in various directions, but you will never get to where you’re going – because you don’t have a shared understanding of where that is.


Sadly, many IT organizations think that defining a vision is too abstract, they don’t see the point, and they just want to get on with it. So they jump straight into what they consider to be the important work – frequently technical matters such as software development or choosing tools and configuring them. The results are as predictable as they are sad. IT staff work very hard, but fail to arrive anywhere helpful, with results that are not nearly as good as they could have been.

So next time you start a project, or an improvement initiative, take a bit of extra time at the beginning to define where you want to end up. Dream up a vision of where you could be if everything goes well. Then share this with your team. NOW you can start on the detailed work that will help you to get there.

If you’re like Alice in Wonderland, then it really doesn’t matter where you decide to go next, because you don’t know where you want to end up. BUT if you start by defining your vision then you do have a destination in mind, and you never know, you might actually get there!


Alice Image Credit: sammydavisdog

Other Images: Stuart Rance

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