Activating Strategies Series #2: Creating a Compelling Future State
Corporate purposes, visions and missions are common tools for many organizations. The only problem is that for most organizations they become tools of obligation, instead of inspiration and direction. Organization after organization seems to fall in love with the superlative-rich vision statements that project them to become:
- The world’s most valued,
- The premier,
- The provider of superior,
- The one that exceeds, or
- A leader that finds a better way.
Equally ineffective is the attempt to define the future by throwing out a bold or audacious financial growth target. The road to failure is also littered with slogans like “$10 billion by 2025” or “$15 billion in EBITDA by 2023”. The net effect is they rarely serve to illustrate how the future will be different from the present for the organization, or the people in it. Even worse is the fact that many organizations use the same generic words in their attempt to create a framework for a new and differentiated future destination.
A consulting engagement included collecting 15 examples of current purpose, vision and mission statements from Fortune 500 health care companies. The goal was to see if another health care company embarking on the creation of a new vision could match the statements to the list of 15 companies. Almost comically, it was impossible to determine which statements were missions, purposes or visions.
Even more stunning was the fact there was virtually no difference between what the 15 companies had drafted for their own unique vision of the future. It appeared as if they were created in the same room, at the same time, by the same people. Or that they were bought off the shelf at a vision store in a strip mall. In most cases, the intentions are positive, but the outcomes are almost always without impact.
Corporation Vision vs. Change Vision
In the words of change guru John Kotter, “every successful large-scale change that I have seen has, has a part of it a change vision. And what that means is a picture of after we have made the changes on whatever dimension, this is going to be what we look like.”
Kotter distinguishes a change vision from a corporate vision. He suggests that a change vision or the picture of the future state must show people what the organization will look like after the significant changes have been made. It should also make it obvious how organizations will take advantage of changes that are occurring in the fast moving world around us.
Change can occur only when a company has an honest assessment of where they are and a clear picture where they want to go.
In reality, most companies are not honest about where they are and not clear about where they want to go. The picture for the future is often fuzzy at best, and the fact is, it is impossible to execute fuzz! The key is to develop a change vision that is a vivid picture of the future state and is compelling from an intellectual and emotional standpoint. It shows how we will be different, how we will take advantage of the changing world around us, and how we will integrate our strategies, culture, and behaviors to achieve our vision for change.
Building the Change Vision Picture
Aristotle once said the “soul never thinks without a picture.” A vision for change is a powerful picture of a future state that inspires and motivates individuals to give of their best. It is pointed at answering this key question. “What is it that we want to create, that today does not exist, for which we are willing to endure personal sacrifice to bring to life.”
The detailed vision starts with, “Where do we want to be in the future?” It helps if leaders compose a story that includes what differentiates the company today versus the company tomorrow.
The change vision must set up the shift so people know how tomorrow will be different from today. Of key importance – the picture must be seen as a system. It must picture a desired future state that is sufficiently appealing and compelling to drive change forward. It must describe where we want to be, and include:
- What is compelling?
- What are the external forces that we will take advantage of?
- Why will customers, employees and investors be excited?
- Why do we think we can win in the marketplace?
- How will we be differentiated?
- What are the key levers of change?
- What capabilities will we have?
- How will it enable sustained, profitable growth?
- What will our culture look like?
- How will we behave?
The picture must be both robust and simple so that people can easily understand it. It must be both intellectual and emotional. It must speak to the technical quality of the business you are building, and the cultural and behavioral attributes that will be required to execute.
A clear “Vision for Change” makes people want to go the extra mile, to leave their comfort zones, to take risks. It shouldn’t be easy to reach, but must make people want to really work to get there.
Visual Iteration of the Change Vision Builds Clarity and Alignment
Creating the Change Vision is actually not only about drawing pictures. It is about drawing out the opinions, attitudes, beliefs, imagination, ideas, and conclusions of people (first the leaders) about the compelling possibilities for the future.
Ask a leadership team to individually draw how they see the future of the organization or the change vision for the company. If there are ten individuals, you will find ten different pictures. Change Visions must evolve from separate pictures or familiar words to shared meaning captured in a single picture. Ten pictures must become one picture that is fiercely believed in and rigorously pursued by all leaders and intimately understood by their people.
The art of alignment and clarity is to put these pictures on the table and with dialogue, data and interactions to refine, revise, and modify the ten different pictures into one common mental model of the future that means the same thing to everyone. Without a picture this is difficult to do. Leaders often lament that when we talk together, it is “rarely with depth.”
For the most part we see our conversations as opportunities to trade information or arenas in which to win points. Too many of us have lost touch with the fire of conversation. Instead of dialogue, people usually defend their positions, looking for the evidence that they are right and others are wrong. Most of us, despite our best intentions tend to spend our conversational time waiting for the first opportunity to offer our own comments or opinions, we don’t listen to each other…we reload!
These draft future state pictures have the ability to kindle and sustain the kind of conversational spirit necessary to penetrate and dissolve some of our most difficult preconceived biases and to build a powerful change vision for the future. Thinking together implies that you no longer take your own position as final…you relax your grip on certainty and listen to the possibilities that results from simply being in conversation with each other.
The visual drafts enable dialogue that creates more in-depth, comprehensive, and strategic thinking. Many leadership teams tell us the draft pictures of the future have created a safe haven to go from general high level concepts to critical detail, from avoiding decisions to sharp decisiveness on where to take a stand, and from ambiguity on what they want to be in the future, to clarity that is so crisp that it can be drawn in a picture.
Dialogue around envisioning the future is all about shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together and the ability to harness the collective intelligence of people. It creates the wherewithal to genuinely consider new possibilities, build a powerful and compelling change vision and together to make the personal changes to bring it to life.
Most importantly, when leaders are fully aligned and clear on this future state picture of the business, cascading it down to the rest of the organization becomes much easier and the possibility of achieving the goals is much more likely.
Change can only occur when a company (or a person) has a clear picture of where they are and where they want to go. Sometimes that picture of the future never gets developed properly and may remain blurry, and people just aren’t compelled to do anything. What’s needed is the ability to blend brains, emotions, and analytics – to mix the aspirations with the intentions, the practical with the dreams. When all this comes together, that’s worth fighting for, and that’s what will take the company to the bright, bold future ahead.