Joe Edwards, the visionary and developer for the Delmar Loop in University City, was able to create a culture around his vision and break conditioned responses. Photo by Bill Sawalich (www.barlowpro.com)

Create A Culture That Embraces Vision

A Framework for Breaking Conditioned Responses

by Jeremy Nulik

A few years ago, I interviewed Joe Edwards, the visionary and developer behind much what is now the Delmar Loop in University City. Between bites of seasoned fries at Blueberry Hill, we spoke of the origins of the area. When Edwards arrived in the 70s, the Loop did not exist as it is now known. The area was not at all friendly to pedestrians. A good number of the storefronts were boarded up. Biker gangs and violent ne’er-do-wells ruled the streets.

It was in the context of these Escape-from-New-York-like circumstances that Edwards crafted a vision for a business district that was unlike anything that the region had known. His idea was an urban Mayberry of sorts — an organic reflection of the diversity of the region complete with widened sidewalks, homegrown shopping and restaurants.

Fast forward to today and much of the vision that Edwards created 40 years ago has come true. The Loop continues to evolve and has a buzz unique to St. Louis. The transformation he saw is now our reality. Edwards has been successful in creating a culture that supports his vision.

As a person who leads your business, you are often in the role of visionary — someone who must articulate a future and create a culture that will support that vision. This is not an easy task. But the good news is there is a framework you can use to craft vision — one around which you can build a supporting culture.

Break Your Conditioned Response

In light of Edwards’ example, it appears a fundamental element to fully realizing a vision is to break your audiences’ conditioned response — to allow them to see something bigger than their circumstances. Edwards looked at boarded up buildings and saw a future that was vibrant. It was an unexpected thing. And that is the stuff of cultural inspiration.

Few things make us more human than our ability to break our preconceived notions about the future. And few things are harder for most in business — particularly those who have been successful — than doing just that. However, if you hope to create alignment with others around your vision, you must first break your own conditioned response.

Jim Dator, director of the Hawaii Research Center for Future Studies, is famous for saying, “The future cannot be predicted because the future does not exist.” This quote may sound like something akin to Yogi Berra. But how many of us live as though we know what the future will be. And we attack each day with that kind of certainty about something that is truly imaginary.

In Dator’s 40 years of studying the way humans look forward, he developed four distinct categories for visions of the future. For your purposes as a business leader, I would submit to you that they offer a framework for putting aside your conditioned responses and, in turn, inviting others to lay down their preconceived notions.

Illustration by Steph Sabo of Bigwidesky.

The four categories of vision are:

  1. Continuation — Everything is going to get better.
  2. Collapse — Everything is going to fall apart.
  3. Disciple — Things cannot get better, but there is no desire for things to collapse.
  4. Transformation — The unexpected occurs.

In thinking about the future of your company or division or career, you can use this framework as a way to explore the possibility space of the future. It will uncover narratives you may not have considered and gets you in the mindset to break preconceived ideas. If you can make this a working part of your mind, you will find it easier to help others break their conditioned responses and join. They will want to join with you on your vision.

Try this: Put yourself ten years in the future and write a narrative (no more than three sentences) for each of the four categories of vision. If you really want to have an interesting experience, invite others in your leadership to do the same. You will find, almost immediately, that you can much more easily enfranchise others in a vision that will become realized.

Jeremy Nulik is evangelist prime at Bigwidesky, a human business consultancy, in St. Louis, Mo.