Creating a shared vision for the landscape

In the Partnership Building chapter having a clear and appealing vision is crucial when collaborating, and collaborating is crucial for landscape restoration. This chapter will zoom in on what a ‘landscape vision’ is, how it may differ from other visions, who makes a vision, for whom, and how you may go about it.

Cover photo by Wide Open Agriculture. Pink and grey cockatoo.

Purpose of a vision

The purpose of a vision is actually twofold:

  • It can be a force of motivation, inspiration and banner call for people to join forces
  • It provides direction to actions, it serves as a frame for strategic decision making

Vision as banner call

Partnerships that last and create impact have a strong mission, an audacious goal that is bigger than the individual organisations that make up the partnership. When partnering, it is always necessary to let go of some of your individualism for a greater shared good. To make the individual partners commit to that sacrifice requires a strong vision that everyone connects to. Every partner needs to believe in the common good or shared vision for the partnership to work. A strong vision inspires, motivates action, and creates a feeling of togetherness.

Vision without action is daydreaming. Action without vision is merely passing time. Only when vision and action are combined can we change the world.

Nelson Mandela

Vision as frame for strategic decision making

As we know from movies such as Back to the Future, the future isn’t written. Different ‘futures’ are possible. From this figure it is clear that the most probable outcome, the outcome without any action, may not be the most preferable outcome. Work will be needed to shift the trajectory. To know what work, we need to know what we are aiming for: the vision of our preferred future.


Put simply, there is a lot that could be done. Unfortunately, only limited time and resources are available. What do you prioritise, and why? Having a clear vision helps to determine which activities are more important than others. As we travel through this uncharted territory, we need a clear guiding star to tell us if we’re still on the right track or are getting stuck in a dead end.

Landscape vision vs. vision for the landscape

Who is the vision for? That follows clearly from the purpose of the vision as stated above:

  • it is for the people you want to join forces with, to rally them
  • it is for you and the people you have joint forces with to help determine if the actions are headed in the right direction

We are creating a vision for the landscape, what we think the landscape could look like in twenty years’ time. We are not creating the vision of the landscape that is supported by all of the people (and other stakeholders) in it. The message isn’t: this is where ‘the landscape’ ‘wants’ to be in twenty years. It is: we think there is a better future for this landscape, we imagine it can be something like this, do you want to join us and we can find out together?

Formulating a vision

A future vision is a description of what you think the landscape should look like at a certain point in time. It is not a description of how you think we should get there. We make a very distinct separation between vision (which is on the level of ‘why’) and approach (which is on the level of how/what). Remember that Martin Luther King said: I have a dream. Not: I have a 5 point plan. For this visionary future state we usually take 20 years from present day, in line with the 4 Returns framework. It is about the desired future state, not the predicted future state.

A vision needs to be clear, concise, easy to communicate, appealing and flexible enough for each partner and stakeholder to find their place within it and run with it in their own way. It is not about what the landscape should look like in detail, more about what qualities it should embody. For example, biodiversity, indigenous self-determination and joy in community are all values you may wish to embody in the landscape, that partners are motivated to promote together. To be authentic, they must feel true to the partners involved. Furthermore, they are not stagnant, but need to morph over time as knowledge and understanding develop.

The process of formulating a good clear vision statement is usually iterative and can take quite a bit of time, especially when multiple parties are involved. When starting the process you may each already have a vague (or maybe not so vague) idea of a vision for the landscape. First doing the Landscape and Stakeholder Analysis may already give more data and interesting perspectives on the landscape, what the challenges are, and what kinds of futures may be possible. Based on your shared values it should then be possible to formulate which of those futures is preferable.

The actual formulation of the vision statement can happen in a series of meetings/workshops. A format that could work to kick the process off can be somewhat like this:

  • purpose of the meeting
  • discuss shared values (people suggest one, is put on the board, others vote on whether they share it)
  • present and discuss outcomes of Landscape and Stakeholder Analysis
  • people think about their own vision for the landscape
  • people go out in small groups and formulate their shared vision
  • small groups present their visions back to the big group
  • discussion on commonalities and differences
  • output: a list of key elements of the shared vision

After the workshop, one or more dedicated people take the output and put a first proposal together for a shared vision statement. This proposal will usually need to be discussed and refined several more times. Allow some months for this, people need some time to digest these things and it is not something that needs to be rushed. After all, the vision is never stagnant: it needs to remain flexible over time to allow for incorporation of new information and insights.

An example of a vision statement is the manifesto made by the stakeholder groups coming together in the Waterford landscape in Ireland. Will Buckingham gave an introduction to the role of manifestos in history and emphasised its role in bringing energy and passion to its readers. “A manifesto is not a policy document. It is something much more unruly. Manifestos are designed to shake us up, to get us thinking, and to change not just our minds but also our hearts. They are not the summation of how far we have come. Instead, they are the starting points for change. They wake us from complacency. And they help usher in futures we can’t yet imagine.”

Theory U can be a very valuable methodology as well for the vision statement creation process. Read more about this in the chapter Creating spaces of belonging with Theory U.

And because a vision needs to remain flexible to change as new information becomes available, even when you have settled on a vision statement, after a few years it may need changing again.

Communicating the vision

Once the different parties that are part of the vision creation process are all comfortable with the statement you can start communicating it. A strong vision statement can be a great way to put yourself out there and rally more support. What is important to think about before you go out to communicate is how you will talk about your own role(s) in your vision. When an organisation or group of organisations communicate a vision clearly, it is easy for people to assume that those organisations also take responsibility for making that vision reality. They may see it as a promise, rather than a dream. This needs to be avoided. Therefore always emphasise that everybody needs to put in their part to make the vision reality, and that the creation of the vision is only the starting point of a long and difficult journey. It is a call to action, not an advertisement.

The elephant and the blind men

To close this chapter, a parable. This story can be traced back to India and has been told for at least 2500 years.

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear. (quoted from Wikipedia).

People can tend to see their own, often limited, perspective as the one and only truth. In reality there can be many truths at the same time, all of them equally valid. When we come together as diverse groups to share these individual truths and jointly shape a more complete picture, it is important that we do this with empathy, grace and compassion, and not create opposition. Each perspective has value.

Have you ever been involved in a vision creation process, and what have you learned from it? Let us know in the comments!

This chapter has been written by Bas van Dijk, in cooperation with various Commonland colleagues.

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Time to put words into action. Where do you start? How do you build a coalition of like-minded organisations?  This chapter gives some pointers on how to do this.  This chapter was heavily inspired by the books Team of Teams...
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Strategising: from vision to action

Having developed a good understanding of the landscape and its stakeholders, and having formulated a vision for the landscape and what you want to achieve in 20 years' time, the task ahead can be very daunting. This chapter focuses...
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