Cutting a Path: Building a Vision

What do you do when you are given a goal or an outcome but no instruction on how to get there?

What do you do when you are placed in charge or established as the person leading an initiative and you haven’t done it before?

What do you do if “fake it till you make it” doesn’t work?

Clarity for Some

Before Covid and the commonality of remote work, I’d put on my uniform of the day (suit and tie) and find my way into the corporate office. I had a nice office with everything needed to be productive and professional!

On some days, I kept the door closed and I sat in the dark. My office windows were plastered with plans and efforts to communicate things my team and I were working on. I had structured my strategy and vision around work previously done by myself and others in industry. I also looked to my team to develop practical applications to the challenging problems of the day we faced. We were seeking to help the whole company with this thing called “knowledge management.”

I always wondered how people produced futuristic ideas that were transformation in nature. I am talking about ideas that make us say “wow, this is brilliant, never seen this before.” I thought it may be that these ideas were born in a vacuum. That said, I didn’t believe my ideas were new or transformational as much as they may have been innovative by adjacent application. I mean to say, using a butter knife as a screwdriver, because that is what I have done my whole life.

I sat in my office creating this dark space with the intent of emptying it of everything I knew. It would be a vacuum where I could create something brand new, something cool and inventive! I could potentially do something I had never done before. What if I could create something new, fresh, and exciting?

As much as I tried, nothing magical happened. I didn’t find what I was looking for in the darkness. I didn’t have any epiphany. I studied current inventors and innovations of our time. Who invented things and what did these inventions morph into?

I started to look at my organizational leadership to understand invention, innovation and the connections with operations and corporate concerns. I met with senior leaders in my organization and started to ask questions of them. I wanted to understand how they would take the company to the future. I wanted to understand how they found invention, innovation, and transformation.

Did they close their windows and pull the blinds shut?
Did they simply echo the trade rags and the ideas of others?
What made them different?
What did they do?

What did they see that I couldn’t see?

Not much as far as I can tell. In the end, the company was acquired and almost all of the leadership had turned over. Nothing wrong with this but it teaches and informs us. Wherever we are, we should seek to establish an understanding of our surroudings, our goals, our objectives, our vision (shared) and our vision (individualized). No matter what happens we can adjust accordingly and take action.

In the documentary series and book called “How we got to now” Steven Johnson addressed some of these concepts. He addressed invention, innovation, and vision. It was interesting to learn about the long history of things that are basic to us today. What fascinated me about this was the time it took to invent and innovate shrunk as we became more modern. One thing seemed to hold true throughout all of history is that many inventions and innovations happened at the same time in different places. If there was no Uber, there would have been something else.

This is important when thinking about vision and strategy. Most of us have more ability today than ever to be inventive and innovative. We also have so much data, information, and knowledge that with the right people, we can achieve unbelievable things. In the old days, this would be magic. Today, it is simply technology.

This perspective in hand, senior leaders today in some cases are distant but still connected. This means, they can see possibilities in technologies, they read or become aware of technologies, and they MAY be disconnected enough to believe in concepts that currently do not exist.

This is a very imporant point. Some very senior leaders believe in magic. They look at what exists and ask, “Why not?” instead of “Why?” This may be a factor on invention and innovation. This may be where some kinds of “vision” begins.

Once the question is asked, we can start to see the “hook” forming. The “hook” is like that part of the song that gets us all singing. In this case, it is “landing a portion of a space craft on a moving platform.” People said, “cannot be done” and Musk said “Yes, it can.”

Vision is not created in the empty void or darkness. Vision for an outcome or invention is a driver, a challenge, a hook. It sparks us and drives us to push the envelope on possibilities or deliver an outcome. Something to consider, many things that we envision to invent or create, don’t yet exist in any fashion. We sold the idea or the idea was good and now we have to realize it. Who would have invested in the quantum computer if they understood quantum physics and mechanics?

Vision is seeing the possibilities. When someone can see the possibilities and further articulate the outcomes, they can then work back from those to generate a plan and momentum towards this vision.

We have seen these fail as well. Think about how people were hyped about Theranos and what happened there. If Homes was a different person, maybe the company would have realized the vision. Today, other companies are working towards this same goal.

The Goal

I’d like to pause for a moment to acknowledge that not all leaders have “a” vision relative to invention. Some leaders persist and endure. Some leaders lead through facts and things which we know to be true. I am not challenging them nor am I saying that a leader who lacks vision to invent is ineffective. I’d actually argue, leaders who have a handle on knowns, may be overall better for an organization relative to current and emerging market risk.

Where these things come into question or issue is from the likes of Eastman Kodak, IBM to some extent, Xerox and the many others who were innovative with their knowns but not necessarily inventive or transformationally innovative.

Many other companies had a vision to consume others through M&A and invent, innovate and envision the new world throught this vehicle of consumption. This may be true of Ace Insurance as they became Chubb.

We should understand that having a vision is distinct from being holistically creative. Back to “the goal.” Some may believe there is a separate distinction from a goal vs a vision. If you already know how to do something and you understand the steps it will take to get there, it could be a goal. I’ll argue that even if you know what it is, the steps, the conditions, the states and modes, all the stuff, you can still have a vision.

So what of it? Goal or Vision or What?

If I can see it in my minds eye, I can have a vision. If I can work back through this vision even with great gaps in current capability, I can make something which seems impossible, probable. Can we teleport through space and time? Maybe!

Some of this has to do with timing, need, charisma, overall motivation, money, power and the ability to be couragous, bold and relentless.

Someone (possibly Mandela) once said “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

To cut a path and create a vision, imagine where you want to be. Imagine what it will take to get there. Determine the knowns and unknowns and communicate your intention, your idea and your outcomes. It starts with communication and the rest is up to you and the people who can now see what you see. In other words, it is not about darkness, it is about light!

What do think?

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