Do you have a vision for your organization for 2016? If you do, you’ve crossed the first hurdle, but for many organizations I’ve worked with, putting these visions into practice is the more challenging piece of the puzzle. I’ve found that there are three particular areas of emotional dissonance that can seriously impede the vision process. It can cost an organization valuable time—and even lead to overall failure—if each key participant doesn’t embrace these three powerful ideas right from the start:
1. Live in the past, present, and future simultaneously.
Visions work when those who develop them are able to constantly juggle the past, present, and future. A study of firms with rapid, sustained growth found that their most senior executives were able to stay focused on the state of the firm’s desired future. Yet, at the same time, they remained attentive to day-to-day activities that continually reinforced the vision and philosophy guiding their growth (e.g. organizational processes like the structure, culture, and people processes), which created a powerful framework to support the vision itself. With a clear and robust vision as their beacon, these teams also held on to what had worked in the past, modifying or supplementing existing structures and processes, rather than completely replacing old techniques that worked well simply for the sake of starting fresh. These executives had the ability to continually analyze and reconcile the firms’ recent past with their intended future.
2. Acknowledge emotion and disorientation.
Strategic vision depends on the ability to feel one’s way into an intended future. It cannot be developed by looking coldly at words and numbers on pieces of paper or computer screens. In working with executives who truly want to create adaptive, growth-oriented organizations, I’ve found that they begin the process first by looking deep within themselves. They need to know who they are and what they want their organizations to be so that when they articulate their vision to those who work for them, it comes from a conviction that combines their personal need for action with a larger purpose. This signals to themselves and everyone around them that they are open to changing the way they see themselves and the company. For most, this part can be scary as hell.
Leaders who successfully implement their visions don’t simply think about themselves in the context of the future they’re defining. They allow themselves to feel enthusiasm and passion for that future, which reinforces their commitment and determination and that of those around them. This makes it easier to overcome the often-daunting challenges and roadblocks that prevent the vision from becoming a living reality.
Niall FitzGerald, former cochairman of Unilever and cocreator of its vision-driven transformation process, spoke openly about the abyss for him. “You feel anticipation, even deep uneasiness, but the excitement of the vision calls on you to take that leap, then build a bridge for others . . . At Unilever, the bridge we needed to build was all about people: we needed to tap into their passion; we needed them to see their business in entirely new ways; and we needed them to develop very different leadership styles.”
Antony Burgmans, FitzGerald’s counterpart, reflected similarly, “As we launched into our growth strategy, I realized that I didn’t feel right: something was missing . . . What I saw was that even though we had an excellent change strategy, and an inspiring vision, what was really required to bring about change at Unilever was a new culture, a new leadership mindset, and new behaviors.”
In other words, as Burgmans was to discover, what Unilever needed was passion at the top to fuel change throughout the organization. Innovation and risk-taking are necessary for crossing the abyss and bringing an ambitious vision to life.
Conceptualizing a vision raises goal-oriented thinking to the next level—one that may easily induce feelings of inadequacy. Too often, business is a place reserved only for cold, practical reality and dealing with the problems of the present. But visions begin as dreams of the kind of life we want, the things we want to create, or the part of the world we want to change. Embracing them requires a level of vulnerability that many executives find hard to bear.
3. Accept that the process is, by nature, imprecise, frustrating, and sometimes tedious.
The process of developing a vision runs counter to the way most people in organizations normally operate. Visioning cannot occur without starts, stops, and some confusion. Confusion is a natural reaction when confronted with an entirely new way of doing things. This is merely a sign that the brain is trying to process new information. Unfortunately, those in senior-most positions too often relate confusion to a lack of mastery, to not being professional, and hence avoid it at all costs. Acknowledgment that visioning is not a clean, easy undertaking will help overcome resistance to creating a full-range vision.
Just as you would never go run a marathon without any training, nor should you jump into the process of creating a strategic vision without any preparation. Making sure that you and your team know what to expect when heading into this exciting—but often unsettling—process will help set you up for success.