The Future Remains to Be Seen

What will you look like in five years? Have you thought hard about that?

What will you be doing? Who will your friends be? How will you be different in five years than you are today? If you are like most, you will discard the question for any one of a variety of specious reasons; claiming that you cannot predict what tomorrow will hold, so there is no sense in imagining what five years will look like. Or, you may hold that the journey is more important than the destination. I will be honest. These are excuses that psychologically release you from the responsibility of defining a vision for yourself. And that’s fine if you are the only one impacted. But, if the future of your organization rests in the quality of decisions that you make today, you better have a crystal-clear vision for where you are going tomorrow.

Stating the Obvious

If you have been a leader for more than five minutes, then you have heard about the importance of a vision. It is rare to walk into a matter of transformational significance, where the vision of success has been properly defined. Most leaders, when charged with creating a vision, land on something resembling a vision statement. They feel their vision should be concise and to the point. Let’s look at a few:

  • Amazon: To build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online
  • Microsoft: To help people and business throughout the world realize their full potential
  • Google: To provide access to the world’s information in one click

These are the visions of three of the most powerful companies in the world, and yet standalone, none of them create a clear picture of what they strive to become. It is hard to see how ineffective these visions are, because we have all been trapped in their orbits for many, many years. However, try to imagine coming across any one of these visions in the year 1970, when nobody had really heard of these companies. “To help people and business throughout the world realize their full potential.” Really? What does that even mean? I certainly don’t picture anything like Windows 10 when I read it!

Even a good vision statement does not supplant a good vision.

My point is this, even a good vision statement does not supplant a good vision. And this small but important point can have devastating consequences for a leader undergoing a transformational effort. By definition, your future will be very, very different from the present. So, your employees need to clearly understand where they are going and more importantly why that place is better than where they are now. And there is little to no chance that a 15-word phrase can convey the future with enough clarity to make it real for them. You must do more than that – a whole lot more.

Seeing Is Believing

Creating a good vision takes more work than you probably realize. If you want to create a vision statement for your desired end state, that’s fine, but only do it after you have created your full vision. A vision statement should be one arrow in your vision quiver. Think of your vision statement as the punch-line at the end of a movie or an advertisement – what storytellers call a “jab.” In the 1980s, Vidal Sassoon ran commercials with the tagline, “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.” Models would parade around while Vidal explained all the great things his shampoo can do for your hair and then at the end of the commercial, he would hit you with this memorable tagline. This is what a good vision statement does. It is a memorable hook so people can easily remember the vision. But they need the actual vision first for this to work. This is where the hard work comes in.

To create a good vision, you must implement, what I call, Visionography. Imagine you are a movie producer, creating a film of your future organization (in many respects, you are!). As you may know, some producers will take years or even decades to create a two-hour movie. This is the type of intensity you must apply to your vision of the future. When complete, it must be tangible and real. It must be aspirational, yet attainable. It must be crystal clear, even though there are elements of the future that are not under your control. And it must be exhilarating! It must be so compelling that employees cannot wait for it to arrive. A fantastic future is a vital moiety in your compelling case for change – the other being an unbearable status quo.

So, don’t hold back in your efforts to craft a future that is meaningful and exciting. This can manifest in a number of ways, but the byproducts should be quite voluminous (not unlike where Vidal Sassoon professed your hair would arrive). When I was helping a sizable multi-national oil and gas company with a large transformational change to their organizational design, I had all the department leaders create a two-to-three-page vision for their department, including strategic results, behaviors and culture, and interfaces with other functions. We then assembled everything into a very detailed picture of what the organization would look like when we succeeded and posted it publicly for everyone in the organization to read. Critics argued that nobody would read such a long document about our vision. They were dead wrong.

Conclusion

All leaders hear about the magic and importance of a magnetic vision. However, few put the time and effort into creating one that is compelling. For people to come along with you on your journey, they will need a reason to believe what you believe. Your vision forms that bridge, so take this job seriously. Dedicate time and resources to create a compelling vision. One that is thorough, believable, and exciting. If you build it – and they believe it – then they will come.

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