On Strategy: Vision Beyond Vision

Sometimes - when it's really done right - an organization's vision becomes far more than its purpose as a guide and direction of travel.  It becomes an individual purpose.  A way of life.

Sometimes - when it's really done right - an organization's vision becomes far more than its purpose as a guide and direction of travel.  It becomes an individual purpose.  A way of life.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal hosted their D6 Conference on All Things Digital.  If you were listening, you not only heard what's next, but you also learned why we are where we are - and how it doesn't even scratch the organizational and societal surface of where we're going and what we can expect next.

This wasn't about "all things digital."  It was about all things possible.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, told the story about the call he received from his friend and former semi-roommate while Ballmer was at Stanford Business School. The caller, a Harvard drop-out, asked Ballmer to to leave his chosen trajectory - which would have netted unquestionable success - and join him in a start-up that had as good as no track record in a market that, at that time, didn't exist. 

Smart man that he is, Ballmer asked Bill Gates, "Why would I leave Stanford to join you?" to which the iconic Gates responded, in part, with his iconic vision: "Because we're going to put a computer on every desk and in every home."

Two days later, Ballmer left Stanford and made his way to Redmond, Washington.

But the rest isn't history.  That was just the beginning.  That's the way vision really works.

Because, a few years ago, when Gates and Ballmer recognized that they had as good as achieved their initial vision - twenty-something years later - they updated and expanded it.  Now, Microsoft's vision is that there is no area of anyone's life - personal or professional, at home, in your office, in your car, on the phone...no area - that Microsoft software, products or services will not touch.

That's a vision that doesn't end - not just because of the products and services it creates.  It's because, in listening to Ballmer, you still hear that sense of excitement, of all things possible, that captured his imagination all those years before.

People like to talk about John F. Kennedy's vision that the United States would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade - the 1960s - as the hallmark of what a vision can and should be.

It worked.  There's no question about that.  In fact, the people involved brought it in early and beautifully when the lunar module landed in the Sea of Tranquility in 1969.

The real question is, why did it work?  What did Kennedy's vision do to hook the attention - the dreams - of the people who became involved and kept them committed from that time forward?

Fast forward almost fifty years from that "man on the moon" vision to the past week.  The Phoenix successfully landed on Mars to collect data and send photographs of that planet's surface.  Eleven attempts.  Six failures.  Billions of dollars spent - and lost.  No prior comparable spacecraft existent - neither for its technology nor its capabilities.

After traveling toward Mars for months, in less than five minutes, it had to cut its speed from 12,000 miles per hour to less than five miles per hour - then land safely and softly, just where the scientists wanted it to.  And it did. 

There was nothing like watching the scientists and engineers at the NASA/JPL Mission Control Center listening to that tinny voice announcing how many meters from the surface the Phoenix was as it approached the planet.  Thirty meters.  Twenty meters.  Fifteen meters.  Ten meters.  And then it landed.  First, silence, then an explosion of sound from the scientists that rocked the earth.  Now, not only were they furthering the fifty year old vision, they were successfully contributing to a new one: the possibility of life on Mars - before and yet to come.

(There's also nothing like watching a bunch of grown men - scientists, mind you, who are not known for their overblown expressions of emotions - jumping on and over each other to make sure that they hugged and were hugged in celebration.)

There's another interplanetary vision at play, as well.  In a joint venture that got quite a bit of attention in the 1980s - during the height of the Japanese Management Techniques/Total Quality frenzy - a number of Japanese corporations began combining forces, allied with their Government, to achieve a vision of building housing on the moon (as a way-station) and Mars (as a final destination).

How many years to achieve the vision?  Oh, about two hundred fifty.  That's all.

Yes, those employees - now thirty years in - are comfortably working to a vision that they know won't be achieved until centuries after they are gone.  But they continue to work on it - focused, committed, engaged. 

Because when it's done right, that's what your vision will net you.  It's not you, personally, that makes the multi-generational difference - although years after you're gone you will always get the credit for establishing and building the vision.  It's that your dream of what can be transcends what is and captures the imaginations of those with whom you build your enterprise.  As well as with those who come long after you are gone.

Back at the D6, Jeff Bezos, Chairman and CEO of Amazon, talked about being a customer-centric organization.  Anyone who knows anything about Amazon will quote you that expression.  Amazon is customer-centric.

But this time, when Bezos was talking about how they determine what their offerings will be, he said something that took his vision of being customer-centric into a new dimension.  For his part, he wasn't as concerned with whether his company had the skills or knowledge to provide whatever service his customers were looking for.  All that mattered was that the customers were looking for it.  Their raison d'etre is to be customer-centric.  It's not just how they do what they do, it is, ultimately, all they do.

That explains why Amazon is no longer just looking at providing books, CDs, DVDs, kitchen and garden tools and all the rest that they sell on their own and with other vendors.  Now they're looking at how they can use their technological expertise to assist other companies, large and small, in fulfilling their  technological needs - now and in the future.

This isn't about creating new bricks and mortar warehouses to ship more products.  Nor is it about allowing other companies access to Amazon's proprietary inventory and fulfillment software to help their business - all of which Amazon is and has been doing for years.  This is about creating new technologies that address and exceed what other companies' needs are looking for - even before they know what it is.

And that vision expands Amazon's "customer-centric" customer base to one without limits.

It's easy, when you're talking about vision, to say, "Sure, that's technology.  There are no limits to what those R&D guys can do.  Vision is easy then."

Actually, it's not - at least no easier or harder than for any other organization or executive, because vision isn't about the words or products or services. 

It's all about you.

When you look at your organization and think about what you have created, what you wanted to create and what is yet to be created, what do you see?

As you look at your industry - and others - to see where they are, where they are going and what the possibilities are, what can you envision?

When you put that information in the context of the world no matter how you define it - from your neighborhood to the globe to outer space - what possibilities do you imagine?

And most important of all:  What do you want?

What, when you think about your legacy as an executive, a builder of organizations and people, do you want to leave behind as that thing that transcends you and has engaged the imaginations of everyone with whom you and your enterprise come in contact?

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What is the legacy you want for your organization and industry that takes it to heights and possibilities never before envisioned?

That's where vision starts.  It's not a pretty corporate saying.  It's all about you.  The executive.  The leader of your people.

After that, it's all about how you engage, inspire and influence not only those immediately around you in your organization, but everyone who has any contact with your company.  Your vision becomes everyone's standard of operation and expectation.

It becomes their dream and their reality - just as it is yours.

So take some time, sit back and think.  What is my vision?  What did I - and do I - want to create that will capture the imaginations of everyone my company touches?

What do I want?

Once you know it - and can feel it, taste it and touch it - then move on it.  Talk about it all the time.  Share it.  Build it with others.  Engage them and be more engaged.

Do and be that person that your employees, customers, shareholders and stakeholders know, trust and believe in - because they know, from your vision, that they can trust you with their lives and livelihoods.

Be the most exquisite, accomplished executive you can be - then be more.

Be your own vision achieved.

About the Author:

Leslie is a founding Board member of the Global Women's Leadership Center at Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business, serves on the Advisory Board of the Russia Research Network, is the former director of the Institute for Quality and Productivity Improvement at California State University, Long Beach, has been a member of the Judges Panel for the Sterling Award for Quality in California and is included in the Who's Who Registry of Global Leaders among others.

She is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts and a Freeman of the City of London.


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