The Vision Thing


Photo by Barry Schwartz

I used to worry quite a bit about finding my “vision.” Where was it?  What was it?  I assumed the responsible thing was get a fix on my vision in advance of performing any work, then just stick to it. It was troublesome to try to envision something as ephemeral as my “vision”, unrecognizable until the work was a finished product – if then. Was having “vision” the same as developing a “voice”? All very confusing. Too many levels to get a handle on.  I just kept working.

“The Vision Thing”: the first President George Bush talked about it while campaigning for president.  He was making fun of the idea, in an anxious, politician-running-for-office sort of way.  The phrase entered popular culture along with the apparent triviality of its meaning.

Bush was responding to questions about where he thought the country ought to go.  Turns out, the vision thing is not so funny after all. Individuals and organizations who don’t have a vision for the future – a mission – along with the ability to implement, are just not going to be successful, whether it’s the U.S. government, a school board, a company, or an entrepreneur.

Apple is an example of a better way. While much of its success is popularly attributed to Steve Jobs, he took great pains to instill a sense of vision that ran through entire company: design, manufacture, software, customer service, marketing. One of the reasons Apple is worth more than any other corporation in the world is that its customers trust it to be what it says it is: a forward-thinking company providing useful products that, to a greater extent than its competitors, just work, and work well. An enormously simple result – the result of an enormous amount of work combined with a steady vision over decades. The vision remains even though Jobs does not.

A by-product relates to a phrase I learned last year: “the bike-shed effect”, also known as Parkinson’s Law Of Triviality. In 1957, Cyril Northcote Parkinson described a community finance committee meeting in England with several items on its agenda, among them whether or not to approve a contract to build a nuclear plant.  Another agenda item was the design and manufacture of a bike-shed. Everyone on the committee easily  grasped details regarding material and design choices for the shed, and they spent a lot of time debating their options. No one on the committee understood much about what goes into building a nuclear reactor, so they spent two-and-a-half minutes debating before voting to sign a contract to have it built. The bike-shed effect comes down to this: it is far easier to act on issues you understand while avoiding debate about issues you do not, regardless of the consequences.

The worst thing that could happen with a bike shed might be that it leaks. The same is true for a nuclear plant. The consequences, however… Groups that do not have a clear vision for themselves and a clear mission regarding those for whom they are responsible can wreak some genuine havoc on the people who depend on them.

Bike-shedding is not limited to finance committees in England. Organizations small and large: community, commercial, or non-profit – even the U.S. government – demonstrate on a regular basis how damaging Parkinson’s Law Of Triviality can be.

I’m pretty good at bike-shedding, myself: a community of one. It can be a challenge to figure out what’s important right this moment – and will it remain important later? My various careers have sputtered along, gone into reverse then forged ahead, with me not always clear what happened, good or bad, until after the fact. Hyper-aware of my bike-shed tendencies, I try to protect myself from myself by searching for and soliciting advice about what to implement, what to keep in reserve, and what to ignore.

People and organizations who are successful over the long-haul exhibit a constant: they have a vision and a mission for themselves they are able to verbalize clearly and with a minimum of jargon. They study the culture they operate in and look past their own noses at the needs of their constituents or customers about what to implement and the best ways to do it. Having a vision and mission doesn’t mean they always know what to do, but it does mean they know what their job is.