Why your vision is destroying your business
The Harvard Business Review website has circa 13k references to ‘vision’. It also has around 13k of references to ‘strategy’. But of course the HBR has been around for a century and a lot has happened since its founding, including the seismic transition from the industrial to the digital / human / social etc epoch.
Epochs themselves are getting shorter. We were all:
- Hunter gatherers for around two million years
- Agriculturalists for around 12 thousand years
- Industrialists, more specifically ‘cogs in the machine’ for three hundred years.
Of course the industrial era hasn’t quite petered out. Today many leaders are endeavouring to keep their ‘factories’ operational. They are struggling in much the same way as a hunter gatherer would struggle when looking for grains and prey in Walmart. The world has moved on, yet many organisations are ignoring the amber that is forming around their business model.
As an aside, HBR has only 29 references to foraging, but in fairness does have 4k references to farmer.
It’s not just digital
This post to some extent is an update on a post I wrote about five years ago on living in a post-strategy world. Since then we have seen a surge in digital technologies and in turn a wave of disruption. Some are surfing that wave and others are drowning. Biological disruption in the form of biotech is on the horizon. It is still in the baby teeth phase of development.
No doubt that will change as the scientists develop a better balance between science capability, market desire and affordability.
In any case, a little startup called Covid-19 has over the last few months become a household name and its impact has been somewhat disruptive.
It has induced panic in both governments and the private sector. Visions and strategic plans are now gathering dust as leadership attention turns towards pulling their organisations out of this unanticipated socioeconomic tailspin.
The problem with visions
Vision has been an issue for some time. Visionary leaders are often romanticised. They see what others don’t see. Sometimes the vision is so radical that even citizens and consumers cannot see the value in it. Apple’s iPad being an example of vision at its most excellent. The more typical reality is that middle management don’t get it and so there is a failure of execution. Similarly visions can confuse analysts and investors, particularly where there is significant deviation from the model they understand.
Visions became immensely popular in the years leading up to 2020. A 2020 vision, given its association with visual acuity, had a nice ring to it.
Today we are hearing of 2030 and 2040 visions. But what happened to the 2020 visions? It would appear that having a vision is a way of deferring delivery.
As the clock speed of business and society accelerate, 2030 and 2040, for all intents and purposes, are eons away. Would your country really benefit from 20 more airports and 500 new hospitals in the next decade? The assumed population growth might well make these sensible projections, but a rising demand in sea travel coupled with advances in wellness, might obviate the need for replicating what is popular / necessary today. In short, we have no idea what the future holds and thus it makes little sense in planning for one specific and fictitious scenario.
Vision planning has extremely limited value in today’s uncertain and volatile world. Similarly mission statements simply serve to paint the organisation into a corner. Even core values need to take a more seasonal form. Again, the analysts and investors will struggle with such radical thoughts and so leaders will be forced to play along with these industrial era constructs. This will simply lead to a growth in fractious shareholder meetings prior to the corporate equivalent of flatlining. Though it may lead to more innovative forms of financing. In any case, there will be consequences for related industrial era constructs such as pensions and retirement. Citizens will not react well once they realise their visions are dashed.
Situational awareness trumps strategy, or more specifically strategic planning. As I have mentioned in previous posts / keynotes, the fighter pilot that plans their manoeuvres in advance of the dogfight won’t be in many fights.
Thinking on our feet and being streetwise trump planning and focus. In fact, focus can get you killed (both personally and corporately) if your obsession on the goal blinds you to imminent threats. Similarly an unflinching resolve to achieve the vision can lead to missed opportunities.
Visions make for great conferences and executive awaydays, but they are no longer relevant.
Adaptability is key. Organisations need to discard the inert factory profit engine and embrace a model more akin to a dynamic, sensing, living organism. It will be less about market share or maximised profitability and more about building assets to buffer the organisation against an unknowable future.
Covid-19 reminds us that dreaming is a risky business. The world is changing rapidly. You are advised to ‘sleep’ with one eye open.