Here’s my vision for solving the looming worldwide shortage of petroleum while reducing the accumulation of greenhouse gases: We’ll ban lawns and cruise ships.
Lawns are evil. Banning them makes all kinds of sense. The chemicals needed to get grass to grow while killing everything else are a prime source of pollutants. Lawnmower engines burn a lot of gasoline and pollute more than automobiles. And for what? Green in front of the house? Shred used tires, turn them into a ground cover and paint it green. Or, just let whatever wants to grow in front of your house grow.
Cruise ships aren’t exactly evil, but they are entirely pointless. They’re behemoths that exist solely to create a place where people can eat, enjoy entertainment, be pampered, and end up where they started. Convert a warehouse and save the oil.
Nothing to it.
Except that there’s a lot to achieving even such seemingly easy, practical and beneficial changes as these. If you don’t believe me, drop down from 100,000 feet and figure out what you’d have to actually do to get the job done, assuming you escaped the lynch mobs that would hunt you down if you tried.
The synonym for “the view from 100,000 feet” is “wrong,” because from 100,000 feet, everything that’s important to how the world works is too small to see. Nonetheless, many executives think their role is to create the vision — the view from 100,000 feet — and leave the details to others.
Which is to say, everything looks easy until you have to do it.
Truth be told, this wouldn’t be much of a problem if visionary executives would just hire competent people to execute their visions and then get out of the way to let them do it. Instead, here’s what usually happens to even the best of corporate visions:
- Bad thinkers: Since managers tend to hire themselves, executives who are careless thinkers generally hire other executives who are also careless thinkers. The result is that the first layer of the company at which careful thinking occurs is at too distant a stratum to have any influence.
- Not knowing what they don’t know: It isn’t that executives want to make bad decisions. It’s that their altitude makes complex decisions appear simple. That simplicity means they don’t ask any questions, or enough, or the right ones before deciding.
- Reliance on witty sayings: “We don’t want to suffer from analysis paralysis.” “By the time we make a decision the Cubs will have won a World Series.” “Don’t talk. Do.” And the ever-popular, “We don’t have time to dance around the pyramid, holding hands and singing Kumbaya.” Sure they’re witty, or at least they were witty twenty years ago. But while they don’t actually mean anything, they do inhibit the exchange of important ideas.
- No time to think: We’re running lean and mean. We’ve cut out the fat. Sadly, to those who never studied anatomy and physiology the brain looks like a cantaloupe-sized lump of fat, so out it went. The result is that nobody in the company, including the executive ranks, has enough time left to think things through. It leads to the Nike mentality — just do it. It sounds clever when the subject is putting on running shoes (but aren’t you supposed to stretch first?); it’s far from clever when your goal is to achieve change in a complex environment.
The basic techniques for achieving change are well-known. They require breaking down the big idea into small, clear, understandable tasks. They require building organizational consensus on the importance of achieving the result. They require steady, consistent, day-to-day leadership. They require having people sweat the details.
Vision is important. Whether yours is about banning lawns and cruise ships, designing industry-transforming products, or launching industry-transforming projects that will eliminate lawns and cruise ships, vision is the difference between milling about aimlessly and being able to focus everyone’s efforts to achieve a common purpose (yes, schwerpunkt).
But if you think your job is done with the vision, you’re missing two essential points. First, your vision is probably wrong. And second, even if it’s right, it will never happen.
Aside from that, you’re doing fine.