The Vision Thing
Everyone seems to agree that in order to succeed, you need to have a vision.
Brands need a vision. Companies need a vision. Even each one of us, as individuals, needs a vision of where we're going in our job, in our career, in our life overall.
A vision is the source, so we're told, from which all strategies and actions flow, the foundation upon which everything else is built.
But it raises some thorny questions: what exactly do we mean by a "vision," and how do we arrive at one?
As someone who has worked as a creative professional for years, I know that the answers aren't easy.
The creative briefs I receive usually include something that's called a "vision," but in almost all cases it's far too vague to be acted upon.
Often management, even at the highest level of a corporation, expresses its vision with something like " …to become the number one provider of _____..." or "…to act with integrity and treat customers, as well as one another, with respect..."
Noble sentiments indeed, but they don't really help much if your job is to turn a vision into concrete communications, or corporate policy.
They're simply too generic and too abstract to provide a meaningful way forward. In aiming too wide they might even be counter-productive, leaving so much room for interpretation that those like myself end up feeling overwhelmed, even paralyzed creatively.
Since the "vision" is ambiguous or incomplete— yet presented as something clear, comprehensive and of great authority, you end up fearing that whatever way you "realize it," the answer will be wrong.
You're blocked before you even begin.
But, in all fairness, management has to start somewhere, right?
Sure, they've got to start at the same place all of us start at when we're about to approach a new problem. But that place is certainly not a vision. Rather, it's a question, or an impulse or an objective.
See, a vision is not something you start with. A vision is what you end up with. It's the result of exploring your initial impulse through a creative process that is essentially circular.
Let me try to explain with an example that many of you probably recall from junior high school. In seventh grade English class, I was taught to prepare an outline before I wrote an essay. What I was learning was to first establish my vision in terms of the outline, and then "fill it in" with the actual words and sentences of the composition.
This always perplexed me. How could I make an outline if I didn't even know what I was going to write about? (Granted, the teacher might have given us a subject to explore, but I had no clue as to what I thought about it.)
For me, the best way ahead was simply to start scribbling down my thoughts no matter what they were. It was a sloppy procedure, filled with false starts, contradictions and half-baked ideas.
But as I wrote, certain patterns would emerge which led to the beginnings of an outline.
This preliminary outline would then inform my writing which, in turn, would alter the outline, which would then re-inform my writing, which would then change the outline once again, well...you get the picture. I'd actually be going around in circles, engaged in a roundabout creative process that ultimately resulted in an organized and coherent essay.
The lesson here is that the essay itself was the vision. It wasn't something I started with, but something I discovered along the way.
Framing "the vision thing" in this manner, as an end-state rather than as a beginning, has real relevance to how we manage our companies and the people within them.
Unfortunately, all too often we assume that processes can be linear when, in fact, they're circular. We think problems can be solved up-front without allowing ourselves the time to explore or even define them accurately.
The imperative for efficiency-above-all precludes the trial-and-error, back and forth, hemming and hawing that is at heart of not only creative problem-solving, but of all problem-solving.
As I mentioned above, this can cause people to get blocked before they even begin, leading to decreased efficiency and lowered morale.
What I recommend, therefore, is that companies start to get comfortable with the idea that problems cannot be clearly defined or solutions arrived at without going through the messy, seemingly inefficient (yet fascinating) process of exploring those problems inside and out.
There is no way at the beginning of an assignment to fully understand where you're going, or at times, even what you're trying to do. But if you simply move ahead, getting into the creative spirit of learning as you go, a coherent and meaningful solution will emerge.
That's the vision I have for the modern corporation.
Well, it's a start at least.