Everyone loves a vision: a big, optimistic and galvanising assertion of where your organisation is headed.
A lot of organisational strategies start with a vision. It’s the top of the mountain. A focal point. A North Star! Some inspiring words on your lanyard maybe. But there are big flaws in how visions are developed and as a result many visions fail. They don’t galvanise people. They don’t motivate people. They don’t work.
Why do visions fail?
Some are simply devoid of any kind of dream. They masquerade as visions by conveying competitive desire, such as: “to be the best provider of X”. But while they project ambition they lack boldness, imagination and specificity. They neither paint a vivid picture of the future nor articulate how an organisation aspires to create value in a changed context. These types of visions are fundamentally lacking in vision. They’re more like statements of competitive intent.
Other visions fail because they’re simply not tethered to reality. They shoot for the stars and then overshoot by some distance. These types of visions are rarely grounded in fact, nor even educated guesses. They’re often so full of bombast they’re meaningless. They look like visions because they say vaguely big things about the future but really they’re pipe dreams. Nobody believes in them, nobody trusts in them. And typically nobody knows quite what to do with them either.
“Hey John, as IT Manager what are you doing this week that will Reimagine Human Potential? I just need a few dot points for Friday’s leadership update.”
We’ve all been there.
However neither of the critiques above are the main reason why visions fail.
The biggest factor behind the failure of organisational visions is that they start with the implicit assumption that the organisation in question will thrive long into the future. They assume, or perhaps presume, that the future envisioned in some way involves the organisation in question.
This is a flawed assumption. The reality is that organisations today have ever-shorter lifespans. There has never been a more precarious time to be in business. An often-cited McKinsey paper from the mid-2010s revealed that the average lifespan of companies on the S&P 500 was 61 years in 1958. These days, it is less than 18 years. A BCG study echoed these findings though with less dramatic numbers.
In the industrial age businesses were established in categories that rarely saw significant change. Businesses grew up in sectors that evolved slowly. However in the digital age change is constant. Seismic shifts are expected. Disruption is always on the horizon. Staying in business no longer requires only pluck and self-preservation — it demands serious strategic agility. To stay the course today is to constantly and obsessively reassess, reimagine and reorganise. The future has always been uncertain but right now perhaps it could be said that it’s more uncertain that ever.
Let’s not assume that organisations have perpetual lifespans. Let’s acknowledge that all businesses die someday. And that organisational obsolescence may be coming the way of many businesses sooner rather than later. What if we then asked some different questions:
What if you didn’t build a vision around your organisation’s future?
What if you built a vision around your organisation’s end?
What this provocation is doing is steering into something very powerful: the clarifying sense of purpose that comes from confronting the end. The sheer clarity that emerges when you acknowledge that everything dies and nothing lasts forever.
When people are facing the end, they suddenly understand what was really important. We’ve all heard the individual anecdotes. With retrospect, people gain clarity around what their goals should have been, and what they should have achieved. They suddenly become clear on their vision by looking back, not looking forward.
“We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.”
What if, by facing the end, an organisation could find its own sudden moment of clarity? What if you could create a better vision by looking back, not looking forward? We took this thinking and created a thought experiment for ourselves. We called it ‘Planned Obsolescence’.
We started by putting a definite timeframe on how long we might be in business. We decided that 10 years captured an appropriate blend of ambition and realism (it was also, admittedly, a nice round number).
We then took a leap 10 years into the future. We asked our future selves some curly questions. Some were framed in the positive, others in the negative. Regardless, the answers that emerged were incredibly revealing. Here are a few of the questions we explored:
- “What one thing did we become known for above all else?”
- “How did we create positive social outcomes with our work?”
- “What product did we launch that changed the world in some small way?”
- “How did we end up doing something completely different to what we do today?”
- “What are we most happy to have achieved in the event that we fold the business?”
- “What is the story of our sudden fall from grace in the event of a big failure event?”
- “What is the reason that Google acquired us?”
We pondered these questions individually before we shared back, mapped and explored in more depth together. Big themes emerged. We clarified some thoughts that had previously only been half-baked ideas (e.g. the idea that we could use our methodology to create a new political engagement model). We saw flickers of ambition that had never surfaced before (e.g. the idea that we could establish a free University). We rode roughshod over our existing business plan with these ideas and it was good. It became clear that the new thinking superseded everything that had gone before.
We were then able to navigate our way back from an identified end-goal to today by asking ourselves, “if we want to achieve X by Y, what needs to happen before then?” and mapping a series of steps over a reverse-engineered horizon plan.
“When it comes to advance thinking, standing at the end and looking backward is much more effective than looking forward from the beginning.”
Annie Duke, ‘Thinking in Bets’
The vision we created through this thought experiment was razor sharp and crystal clear. It was both ambitious and realistic. Being set within a fixed timeframe, it also had natural energy and urgency.
A few things that are worth reflecting on.
- A thought experiment is an excellent shortcut for when you need to super-size your thinking or get into some divergent territory. If we’d had simply planned toward the future from where we are today, we would never have got to the same ideas. We had to force ourselves to live in the future to figure it out.
- Time and again we find constraint to be one of the most useful creative constructs. By arbitrarily defining a business lifespan of 10 yrs, we created a box within which to work. This forced us to approach the challenge differently compared to how we might have tackled it had there been no constraint.
- Backcasting is a useful technique when building a roadmap. Instead of forecasting steps in order from the present to the future, which tends to anchor progress in a status quo paradigm, design the future and work back. We’ve used this a few times in detailed strategic planning sessions and it worked well here.
We’ll be posting a link to a free Miro board soon so you can try ‘Planned Obsolescence’ for yourself. Thanks for reading.