A lack of vision has tripped up presidents and business leaders. President George H.W. Bush famously dismissed “that vision thing” as something not worth investing in. As he soon discovered, however, the electorate did not agree with him. His official biography on the US Senate website contains the following sad commentary:
Bush also suffered from his lack of what he called “the vision thing,” a clarity of ideas and principles that could shape public opinion and influence Congress. “He does not say why he wants to be there,” complained columnist George Will, “so the public does not know why it should care if he gets his way.”
In my post, The Purpose-Driven Organization, I discussed how important it was that an organization know WHY it exists and WHY it does what it does. Simon Sinek believes that it is the job of the leader of an organization to master that vision thing — to see a better world — and then to communicate it in such clear and compelling terms that others volunteer to work above and beyond the call of duty to make that shared vision a reality. But all the goodwill in the world may not be sufficient to reach that goal.
In fact if you look carefully, you’ll undoubtedly find that there are examples in your life and in your organization of the proposition that good intentions often come to naught without supporting structures. Steve Denning wrote recently in a Forbes blog of the challenges of making changes in an organization without tackling its underlying corporate culture. Using the World Bank as his case study, he noted frequent mistakes made by senior management in an attempt to change organizational culture:
- Overuse of the power tools of coercion and underuse of leadership tools.
- Beginning with a vision or story, but failing to put in place the management tools that will cement the behavioral changes in place.
- Beginning with power tools even before a clear vision or story of the future is in place. [emphasis added]
The big exception he found was Robert McNamara, who had a profound and lasting impact on the mission and activities of the World Bank. According to Denning, the key to McNamara’s success was to create a support structure to underpin the vision he had for the World Bank:
McNamara … arrived with a clear vision for the organization: it was to be a lending organization that was lending a great deal more money. He had a clear idea of the management he wanted introduced: hierarchical bureaucracy. He introduced systems and processes that focused everyone’s attention on his vision of the World Bank as a rapidly growing lending organization and the type of management required. Those systems are still largely in place today and still guide management action.
Now let’s move from the arena of large organizations to our personal lives. Every New Year’s Day, people all over the world articulate a personal vision — usually in the form of a New Year’s resolution. And, for many, those resolution are abandoned within the first few days of the new year. Why? In How to Stay Focused on the Important Things, Peter Bregman suggests that it’s because we fail to restructure our personal environments (our lives) in such a way as to improve our chances of accomplishing our new priorities:
In other words, it’s great to learn new habits, but if we want to sustain them, we need to change our environment, and then maintain that new environment, for as long as we want to maintain our change.
Coming back to knowledge management, as Denning so rightly points out, it’s not sufficient to launch a brilliant KM system or technology. Rather, you’re going to have to tackle and change the underlying structure of the organization that makes knowledge sharing less likely. Unfortunately this work is both necessary and hard. And, it cannot be done overnight. The good news, however, is that Robert McNamara has shown us that when you put the right supporting structures in place, the desired behaviors will continue — despite changes in leadership, fashion or vision.
So go ahead and dream your dreams — identify your compelling vision for your organization. But don’t forget to do the hard work of creating an environment that makes it possible to achieve that vision.
[Photo Credit: Trochim]