The Wedge and the Cheese

The Wedge and the Cheese

What is Vision?

Recent conversations on Twitter concerning the topic of leadership have raised the question of “vision”. What is it? Where does it come from? What is its purpose? Who should provide it? I have lost count of the number of organisations I have seen where some kind of vision, if it exists at all, is confined to a scant few executives. Executives who seem mystified that their organisations could benefit in any practical way from having a (shared) vision of the future, either for the organisation as a whole, or even just for a single product, or service.

Aside: My late colleague Grant Rule always made a point of canvassing his management audiences regarding how many of them understood, or even knew about, the vision their organisation had for its future. The numbers replying in the affirmative generally hovered around the 15% mark.

Current and Future States

Before Lean and Agile gained traction in knowledge-work organisations, circa the 1990’s, there was BPR (Business Process Reengineering). Now largely discredited – and for much the same reasons as Lean and Agile are now falling into disrepute – I liked the ideas in BPR for the “whole-system” viewpoint it encouraged. In many ways I’m sorry to see its demise.

One key idea I learned from BPR, and have continued to use ever since, is the idea of the wedge and the cheese.

The Wedge

The wedge represents the reason for embarking on an endeavour, such as a programme for change (Kotter, in his change model, call this the “Burning Platform”, Sinek with his Golden Circle calls it the “Why”). This reason should be the “wedge” that gets people moving, that disturbs the status quo, that shifts the organisation away from its current state.

The Cheese

Conversely the cheese represents the desirable future state, the attractor that pulls people along and towards the new form, or new ways of working for the organisation. Assuming folks like cheese.

In Practice

Hammer and Champy suggested that  the wedge and the cheese translate to a Business Case or Case for Action, and a VIsion, respectively. In practice we have used these two artefacts, in every project since the mid-1990, to provide development- or change-team members and other stakeholders with context and clarity of shared purpose, essential to effective collaboration and teamwork. I’ll leave specific details of these artefacts – including some examples – to another post.


And so, to return to the opening questions about vision:

What is Vision?

Vision. a.k.a. Goal; Objective; End; Desired Outcome or Result.

More specifically, I see a Vision as some more-or-less easy to communicate articulation of a desired future state. Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline” lists Building Shared Vision as one of the five disciplines of the Learning Organisation.

Where does vision come from?

Fundamentally, a specific vision comes from a view of the future and how it might unfold. Most visions arise from some kind of opportunity, be that commercial, social, or personal. In other words, a vision is not so much something to be “created”, “invented”or “imagined” so much as “discovered” or “uncovered”.

What is the purpose of a vision?

Senge suggests that an effective vision “fosters genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.” For me, its about giving people enough context to help them better make the hundred-and-one little decisions (choices, trade-offs) that they may be faced with at work, every day. Sir John Whitmore in “Coaching for Performance” states that teams are about goal-alignment, and I concur, suggesting that a clear vision of the goal(s) is an essential component of such alignment. Further, in my recent post on Fellowship I mention Ackoff’s idea of “Idealised Design”, and its value in allowing us to slough off our collective “assumptions , history and associated intellectual baggage”.  Having a vision of a more-or-less idealised future speaks to this purpose, too.

Who should provide it?

In my view, vision can come from many quarters. From an executive, a leader, a manager, some team or even an individual employee. But wherever it comes from, people need to buy into it and turn it into a shared vision before it becomes truly useful.

“When there is genuine vision (as opposed to the all-too-familiar ‘vision statement’), people excel, and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to.”

~ Peter M Senge

I believe that the best visions are not only shared, but built together by the folks that have to live with them (and live them). So, yes, I’d suggest that fellowship is a great way to build shared vision, and that  a great shared vision can only emerge from some kind of fellowship.

What value does an effective shared vision offer?

Bottom-line, an effective (shared) vision gets everyone engaged and rowing in the same direction, with the information (context) they need to make better choices, all day every day. That is, more engaged and more aligned and making better choices than they would be without an effective vision. And that’s the best test of a vision, too.

What’s the vision in your organisation? Does it, as Marcus Buckingham asks in his book “First Break All the Rules”, make you feel like your work is important? What kind of vision would make you feel that way?

– Bob

Further Reading

Our Iceberg is Melting ~ John Kotter
The Golden Circle ~ Simon Sinek (Video)
Mission Statements ~ Russel L Ackoff (pdf)

  1. Hi, Bob,

    Like your post.

    Can’t resist mentioning our work in this vital area.

    Software for your Head, How To Create and Maintain Shared Vision, McCarthy and McCarthy, 2001

    • Hi Jim,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      I have long loved your work in this area, especially “Software For Your Head”. As this post is as much about organisational vision as software development / product team vision, do you feel I could usefully add a reference to your book under “Further Reading”? I mean, would it be as relevant / relevant enough in the larger context?

      – Bob

      • Hi Bob,


        There is nothing very technical or hi-tech specific in SFYH. In fact, most of our work has been done with non-software teams. I think in particular the sections on Metavision, Far Vision and versions is useful. In addition we focus on the fact that shared vision is not a single object but part of a state of shared being. And we also show how to attain such a state.

        I think we have devoted more energy to phenomenon of shared vision than exists elsewhere.


  2. “Who should provide it?
    In my view, vision can come from many quarters. From an executive, a leader, a manager, some team or even an individual employee. But wherever it comes from, people need to buy into it and turn it into a shared vision before it becomes truly useful.”

    How about getting your vision/ purpose from your customers? Ultimately they’re going to decide whether the one the company came up with by itself is the right one, so may as well get it right first time by cutting out the expensive middle-men and go straight to who’s really paying the salaries.

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      This post is really about organisational (collective, shared) vision a la Senge. In this context, it’s likely that specific customers or market segments (and thus products) are contingent on the vision, rather than the other way round as you suggest. If an organisation has an establish market or customer base, then yes, going to the customers makes a lot of sense.

      BTW “Great Boss, Dead Boss” by Immelman has an excellent example of the kind of organisational vision I had in mind whilst writing this post.

      And IMO the real challenge is not the specifics of any vision, but rather just having one. And having everyone buy into it, more or less.

      – Bob

  3. “What’s the vision in your organisation? Does it, as Marcus Buckingham asks in his book “First Break All the Rules”, make you feel like your work is important? What kind of vision would make you feel that way?”

    The only vision/purpose that would make me feel my work is important would be a real one. No amount of inspirational bollocks could replace real reality.

    • Agree. Must be real. It’s not about inspiration. Did you yet read the Ackoff paper listed under “Further Reading”?

      – Bob

  4. Bob,

    A great post. I’m currently reading Senge’s book “The Fifth Discipline”, so having been reflecting on what it means to have a vision, and the difference between purpose, vision and objectives/goals.

    Senge says ‘But vision is different from purpose. Purpose is similar to a direction, a general heading. Vision is a specific destination, a picture of a desired future. Purpose is abstract. Vision is concrete. Purpose is “advancing man’s capability to explore the heavens.” Vision is “a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.” Purpose is “being the best I can be,” “excellence.” Vision is breaking the four minute mile.’.

    While I find the idea of purpose being different from vision compelling, I don’t like the way Senge is mixing vision and objectives, “breaking the four minute mile” for me is a goal/objective. The vision for me is the mental image the runner holds of breaking the record, the crowds, the pain, the months of training, the pace setter etc. vision is after all visual?

    The questions you asked when first at our office, all lead to a visual response, you could almost see the picture appear in the head of the folks as they built they picture of the desired future state. You’re point about an idealised future does the same I think?

    One final thought (also used by Senge) is an old Japanese saying:

    “When there is no break, not even the thickness of a hair comes between a man’s vision and his action.”

    I’m not sure how much this adds to the conversation? But feels better to get my thoughts out in the open!



    • Hi Andy,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. Different authors use the same terms (vision, purpose, goals, future state, etc.) for different concepts. This makes sharing these ideas all the more difficult, I find. Best to identify the concepts together (as a group, in your own collective context) first, and then decide how (or even if) to label them, later.

      How are things w.r.t. the “desired future state”? How many folks are thinking about this, now, and to what extent are their mental models converging? To what extent are their mental models resolving into more (useful, specific) detail?

      – Bob

      • I agree it is confusing. It is a shame there isn’t some shared vision within the community of authors 🙂

        We are making good progress, clearing some space to have the conversations and learning while we go, but still some time I think before we have a coherent shared vision.

      • How are you making your (collective) progress visible? What evidence have you gathered, to date, that might help folks see where they each are, with respect to the emerging shared vision? How can you be sure that this progress is not just wishful-thinking?

        – Bob

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