Issue 3.11 | October 2012
In this Article: three acts of reflection carry us from dissatisfaction to vision.
by Jonathan Wilson
Jason Kilar didn’t begin the revolutionary online video service, Hulu, because he had a vision, but because he had a reaction. The world was changing rapidly when Kilar left Amazon in 2006, and access to blockbuster movies and popular TV shows wasn’t where it should be – on the internet. Kilar represented a generation that understood and wanted this. But the minds of the potential suppliers of movie and video content occupied a different space. They feared the internet, because they feared the loss of their domination through the piracy which the internet made so easy. Perhaps secondarily, they also feared the loss of quality that they believed the web would force on them.
But Kilar was not about to settle for this. He would not settle with constraint and poor access, nor would he settle for poor quality and piracy. And at that point, he began to envision. He dreamed of “an elegant, clutter-free, easy-to-use video hub for all the TV and movies anyone could ever want, available whenever and wherever they wished”. And when he eventually started the vehicle for that vision, Hulu’s explicit mandate became, “to create a service that users, advertisers and content owners unabashedly love”.
Every vision finds its beginning in frustration. We dream because we are dissatisfied. We think of vision as a creative thing, which it eventually is: but it begins with a reaction – against what should not be, but is.
Roots, Reaction, and Re-imagination
There are three phases to the development of vision. Each phase is an act of reflection, and only one emphasizes imagination. Too often, leaders bypass reflection to get to imagination. The result, as with other aspects of strategic planning, is the oft-practised art of the “thumb-suck”. Vision does not equal fantasy or froth. If it is not substantial, if it is not rooted in truth, it will fade and it will disappoint, or it will fracture under the duress of facts, and in the end it will leave a legacy of disbelief and even cynicism. Getting to that truth takes some work, some thinking work.
The first act of reflection is on one’s own company – on what I call its soul, its root identity, its Strategic Centre™. As a single organism made up of many people, what does your company do best, what are its areas of greatest insight, and what, together, do you and your colleagues believe matters most? You have to have clearly determined the truth about who you are – and who you are not – before you can even think about bringing it to the marketplace where everyone is trading value.
The second act of reflection is on the world around you, and what’s wrong with it (which is where, by the way, your resident grumpy pessimist can be such an asset to your visioning process). It is natural that you will react most to what’s wrong based primarily on your organizational soul: your areas of greatest capability and insight and moral concern. But sometimes it takes a little lateral thinking to discover that in fact you may have something to offer in the most unexpected of places, for problems you thought had nothing to do with you. This is what enabled Nucor to switch from the paper to the steel industry, and why Cirque du Soleil could create a circus the likes of which nobody had ever thought of, bringing theatre and circus together with tremendous flair – with, it must be said, a very French flair. Cirque du Soleil puts on productions that are a song from its soul.
The third act of reflection is the dream, the introduction to the equation of tremendous imagination and creativity. You have moved from thinking about who and what you are as a company, to thinking about what should not be, to thinking about what could be. Vision may begin with frustration or even anger, but negative emotion cannot be its primary driver. If it is, the vision will merely become vindictive, an act of revenge or vindication. It cannot move beyond its narrow concerns to create value that is more substantial and enduring.
We have to introduce love to what frustrates or angers us. We have to guide our reaction to what’s wrong with our values, with what we believe matters most (which are richest when stated in positive terms: for example, beautiful craftsmanship, excellence in engineering, just relationships, and healthy people are all positive values). At this point, reaction becomes vision.
I suspect Apple somewhat lost its way when Steve Jobs decided his frustration and sense of betrayal towards Google should result in “thermonuclear war” with them. He did better when he guided Apple by his frustration with the impractical and the ugly coupled with his passion for, and ability to create, the beautiful and the excellent.
Into the Future
When crafting your vision, be aware of some basic pitfalls. When you describe what you do and how you do it, you are in the space of identity and values, but not vision. When you describe what you hope to achieve, you are describing your purpose or mission, but not a vision.
Your vision is the articulation of a future condition that does not presently exist. But if your vision has to do with self-aggrandizement, you’ve missed the point entirely. You will never be the biggest this, or the leading that, or the greatest whatever, unless you serve your customer well and change their life for the better. But when you describe how things will have changed in the future for your customer because of your contribution, then you have captured your vision, and the adventurous journey towards it can begin.
Another soul insight from www.leadbysoul.com.
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