Using vision to shape the future
Post on 15-Jun-2016
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by Anthony Be l l
Early in my career, my wife and I lived in Strasbourg, nestled against the Rhine in theeasternmost part of France. From our apartment balcony, you could see the citys fa-mous cathedral in the distance. Even from far away, it was an impressive sight, stand-ing over 462 feet tall, with massive flying buttresses on either side, a striking blend of bothstrength and refinement. It was first started in 1176 and took almost 300 years to build.The original architects never saw its completion, and most of its builders died on the job.It went through numerous setbacksfires, political upheavals, wars, lack of fundingand yet there it stands, not only as a monument to human ingenuity but also as a reminderof the power of a clear and compelling vision strong enough to survive multiple generations.
The National Institute for Learning Disabilities has been in existence for more than 25years, faithfully and powerfully serving a narrow segment of the educational market. Sev-eral years ago, it decided to broaden its scope, convinced that its service was too valuableto keep to a limited market. As it set out on a quest to define its scope, its leadershiplanded on the daunting goal of a million students in therapy by 2020what they latercalled their 2020 Vision. When they first explored its implications, they almost abandonedit, because it meant, among other things, training 100,000 therapists. But before dismiss-ing the goal, they asked the question, what would it take to reach that number? And as theycreatively explored different options, they suddenly realized that it wasnt totally unrealis-ticit was still a huge stretch, but not impossible. So they embraced the vision and it gal-vanized them. Everything they did was now put under the scrutiny of that vision. It wasclear, compelling, and captivating. It changed the organization.
H E S S E L B E I N & C O M P A N Y
USING VISIONTO SHAPE THEFUTURE
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Visions energize. A vision exercises a magnetic pull thatirresistibly engages people in its pursuit. It captures theheart and the imagination. The purpose (or mission) stim-ulates the mind as it pushes the organization forward, butthe vision warms the heart as it pulls the organization toits point on the horizon. It gives people the drive to crosseven the most inhospitable terrain and face the most in-clement weather; it provides the energy and passion thatsustain the morale and maintain the momentum. As Pres-ident John F. Kennedy once said, Efforts and courage arenot enough without purpose and directionthe pur-pose and direction that a compelling vision provides.
So why, then, are so many corporate vision statementsso shortsighted?
The Real Purpose of VisionVision is long term, an alien concept in present-day cor-porate thinking, which is increasingly measured inhours, minutes, and seconds. Three to five years is notlong term. Vision asks where you want your organiza-tion to be in ten, fifteen, or twenty years. Some leadersthink out even as far as thirty years. The greater yourresponsibility, the more important it is to cast your vi-sion farther into the future. But at whatever level youlead, you still need to cast a vision and articulate theconcrete description of the future you are striving for.For the head of a department, it may be three or fiveyears. For some CEOs, twenty years may not beenough. Whatever your role, vision extends beyondyour tenure (ideally, a long way beyond your tenure),which requires of leaders a focus on the long-termhealth of the organization rather than on the success oftheir own careers.
An effective vision doesnt predict the future; it shapesit. Every great accomplishment goes through two cre-ations: its creation in your mind and its creation at yourhands. Da Vincis Mona Lisa and Michelangelos Sis-tine Chapel went through two creations: one in theirminds and one at the tips of their brushes. The mentalcreation precedes the physical creation, and the secondcreation is virtually impossible without the first.
The vision you define for your organization is your firstcreation. However distant from its ultimate reality, theclear and compelling vision you cast in the present, atthis point in time, has a huge impact on the growth ofyour organization. This isnt about the projection of afalse vision, one that you use to manipulate; it is aboutdefining a future you believe in, a compelling futurethat genuinely drives you. Its about defining your firstcreation, and that first creation becomes a powerfulforce for growth and change as you enlist your peopleinto the second creation.
Intuitively we can understand the power of vision, butwe can also know it empirically. A Harvard study, con-ducted by John Kotter and Jim Heskett with 207 com-panies in 22 industries over 11 years worldwide, foundthat companies with vision-led cultures significantlyoutperformed those without one, and this translatedinto four key performance criteria described in Table 1.
These are striking numbers. On every count, the dif-ference between organizations with a clear vision andthose without one is impressive. If leaders ever neededan argument to convince them that the pursuit of netincome (profit) as a goal in itself is ineffective, its righthere.
An effective vision doesnt
predict the future; it
TABLE 1. THE POWER OF VISION
With Vision Without Vision (percent) (percent)
Increased Revenue 682 166
Expanded Workforce 282 36
Growth of Share Price 901 74
Improved Net Income 756 1
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It is not difficult to understand why vision is so powerful.Vision does something for leaders: it gives them a cha-risma they never had before. They suddenly find it easierto recruit good people and retain them, they find theirstaff are more loyal, and they find their people are moreproductive. Its not that they have suddenly become morecharismatic; its rather that the vision they set out cap-tures the imagination of their people, and vision breedscommitment. (See The Cause Has Charisma in Leaderto Leader Number 43, Winter 2007.) Vision also breedspersistencethe clearer your vision and the stronger yourcommitment to it, the greater the widespread commit-ment to overcoming the inevitable setbacks and disap-pointments in the pursuit of that vision.
Shaping the FutureSo how do you go about drafting a visionnot just anyvision, but one that is compelling and that looks farenough into the future to shape it rather than predict it?You engage the past, the present, and the future: youdraw from the past, you anchor the future in the pres-ent, and you sharpen the focus of your picture of thefuture with a clear long-term goal.
Mine the Past to Define the Future
Omar El Sawy, a professor at the University of South-ern California, once conducted an interesting experi-ment. He divided 34 CEOs into two groups and askedthem to think of things that might happen to you in
the future. With one group, however, he gave them anadditional task: before thinking about the future, heasked them to think of the things that have happenedto you in the past. The revealing result was that thegroup tasked to look at their past first had future timehorizons that were twice as long as the group thatplunged straight into the future.
Theres something about the past that gives confidencefor the future. Thats why West Point reminds all itscadets that they are part of the long gray line that hasmarched through history ever since its inception in1802, and why they revere the Grants, the Pattons, theSchwartzkopfs, and the many others who have takentheir place in that long gray line. Thats why we cele-brate the Fourth of July: remembering more than 200years of history helps us look beyond the current fouryears of any administration to the future legacy of thisnation.
Every organization has a history. Even a young organi-zation reflects the history and the aspirations of thosewho founded it. Every decision, every choice, and everydocument it creates over the years tells you somethingabout the essence of the organization and the core driv-ers that shaped its early ethos. As a leader, you becomea historian, mining the early business plans, the min-utes from critical meetings, and the articles or any otherdocuments that give you clues about the aspirations ofits founders.
The great value of this exercise lies in bringing the or-ganization back to its core. Growth and success for anorganization bring more opportunities, and those op-portunities typically elicit a reactive approach that insome cases is consistent with the organizations past and
The long term is an alien
concept in present-day
Companies with vision-led
outperform those without
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in other cases isnt. Mining the past brings back intofocus the core essence of the organization, and at thesame time, it traces the evolution of growing core com-petencies that may well shape a new and more appropri-ate direction. Either way, studying the past will bringclarity to those choices.
Anchor the Future in the Realities ofthe Present
You dont cast your vision in a vacuum; you cast it inthe framework of the world where you operate. Thatdoesnt mean you limit the scope of your aspirations; itmeans that your stretching and challenging long-termaspirations are anchored in the credibility and realism ofthe possible, if not the guaranteed.
Every organization has an external environment andevery unit within that organization has an external en-vironment. For the whole organization, it is the broadermarketplace, and for a business unit within the com-pany, the outside environment will be the overall corpo-rate context as well as its own particular piece of theoutside market. Hidden, or perhaps not so hidden, inthis external environment are a host of opportunitiesand threats that hold the seeds of the future:
The current social and cultural environmentthechanging generational and demographic trends,and the cultural values that change with them.
The economic environmentthe likely impact onyour business of macroeconomic conditions suchas inflation, unemployment, interest rates, the riseof China and India, and global energy conditions.
The technological environmentthe likelihood ofnew technology either making your business obso-lete or forcing you to change the way you deliveryour services.
The competitive environmentthe existing directcompetitors and their market positions, the cur-rent breeding grounds for future competition, andthe potential growth of substitute products, ser-vices, or strategies.
The regulatory environmentpending political orlegal actions likely to affect your product or ser-vice, or changing public perceptions that coulddrive controls that currently dont exist.
With a clear sense of the past and the present, you cannow turn your gaze to the future.
Picture the Future You Want to Shape
Strong visions lead to bold initiatives, and bold initia-tives are expressed in bold goalsgoals that capture thehearts, minds, and energy of the organization. WhenStanford set its goal to become the Harvard of the West,when Ford set out to democratize the automobile, whenin 1945 Sony set itself a fifty-year goal of becoming theJapanese company most associated with changing theworldwide image of poor Japanese quality, and whenthe National Institute for Learning Disabilities set itselfthe goal of reaching a million students in therapy by2020 (an 18-year goal at the time), each one defined agoal that focused the organizations considerable energiesin the same direction.
Such goals are compelling. They get peoples attention,and more important, they unify. They are widely pub-licized and widely embraced. They stretch and chal-lenge, but they remain within the bounds ofreasonthey are at least 51 percent believable.
Once you have the vision, you can provide the detail:paint the picture of its fulfillment with as much vibrancy
Anchor your aspirations in
the credibility and realism
of the possible.
The past gives confidence
for the future.
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as you can muster and as much texture as you can inject.Imagine your world with your vision accomplished, andpicture it with the same detail you see in the present.Walk around, observe your organization, and ask yourself:
What kind of technology and equipment do yousee?
What qualities characterize your people?
How do they approach their work?
What kind of products or services do you provide?
What kind of customers do you have?
What kind of relationships do you have withthem?
What kind of market share do you have?
How do your financial statements read?
What kind of reputation do you have in the in-dustry?
What kind of reputation in the community?
Vision is powerful. It is essential. It is not the only key toyour success as a leader, but it is the one that gives life toeverything else that makes you successful, and when youcreate a clear and compelling vision, you energize people.You engage cathedral builders, not stone chippers.
Anthony Bell is president and CEO of Leader De-
velopment Inc., an international speaker and ed-
ucator, and the author of Great Leadership:
What It Is and What It Takes in a Complex
World. He travels internationally speaking on
leadership, corporate culture renewal, coaching,
and personal development. He has worked with
such clients as AlliedSignal, Bose Corporation,
Nike South Africa, British Telecom, Solectron,
and the March of Dimes.