Are you planning some disappointments? On vision vs expectations

Author: Sarah James Willcox

Published on May 28, 2020

“We never live. We are always in the expectation of living” – Voltaire

One of the goals often set when leading a team through change is to ensure that expectations are clear and well understood. If a team – and those working around them – have a shared understanding of purpose and outcome then surely we’ll all make it through the change successfully and in one piece?

The difficulty, I have come to realise, is that in many cases expectations are planned disappointments. There is something about an expectation that means we need things to turn out exactly the way we had planned for it to feel successful. And the problem is that very little turns out exactly the way that we expect.

I wonder, then, if it’s more helpful to have a vision instead? Vision’s an overused word some-times, I think, but it is helpful here. It’s a bit like moving house. You expect it to be disruptive, and dusty, and take longer than you think to get straight because you haven’t got enough picture hooks or extension leads. But what keeps you going is the vision of how it will be when things are unpacked, the dust has settled and the landlord’s gone away. And there’s something about a vision that means that even if it hasn’t turned out exactly how you thought it would, you are open to some of the things that you couldn’t possibly have planned for. The chair that you thought would work in the dining room doesn’t fit but the way the sun spills through the window onto the stairs at a certain point in the evening is something you couldn’t have anticipated.

If you’re planning a change, and thinking about how to share a compelling picture of the future here are five ways that I think visions are different from expectations:-

Expectations are things you hold on to – and feel more fixed so don’t allow easily for change.

Visions feel external – they are things that you can move towards, like a landmark in the distance.

Expectations are things you have – they are for other people to meet and so don’t require any work on your part* – they are for other people to meet

A vision is something out there that you move towards – to realise it will take some work on your part, which may take more effort but will definitely be more interesting.

Expectations tend to be clear and tied to a particular outcome – so if what happens doesn’t match or isn’t complete, you are likely to be disappointed.

Like a landmark that you’re moving towards, what you see in your vision changes as you move closer to it.

Expectations feel ‘contractual’ – which is ok for service in a restaurant or getting your tyre changed but maybe not helpful in a change situation.

Visions need talking about to be shared – they need to be lived, and revisited. They need to be refined as your circumstances change and as your experiences shape you.

Expectations are about management.

Vision is about leadership.

Are you looking to clarify your vision for the future? If you would like help setting the conditions for sustainable change, get in touch.

* Unless they are expectations of yourself, in which case, that’s a whole other ball game and a post for another time.