“Here’s a hint on figuring out your life’s purpose…it almost never lies behind the doors marked, “Be Practical,” “Get Real,” or “Nothing to Fear”!”
“Why do you look so tired?“
Have you ever noticed what happens when you get a question like this? If you’re like me, you assume that, in fact, you look tired and that there must be justifiable reasons for this. So, naturally, the cause of you looking tired becomes your mind’s focus—“maybe I didn’t get enough sleep” you say or “perhaps I didn’t get enough water,” etc.
What about when you hear the opposite—“You look great, what’s changed?” Again, you assume that this person is simply stating facts so, instead of arguing with the statement or observation, you inevitably focus on the underlying reason for it—“Well, that diet must really be working for me!”
Your mind is great at finding reasons as to why an assumption is true—especially when you trick it by offering it up in the form of a question. A definitive statement often triggers dogmatic defensiveness whereas a question triggers mind-provoking thought. The funny thing is that it doesn’t even matter if the question makes sense. For example, you can ask about a presumed outcome that hasn’t even been determined yet and even then, your mind will generate reasons as to why it’s true! It was this thought that led me to develop a simple but extremely powerful visioning exercise enabling you to directly influence your future.
The “VisionQuery” Exercise
The exercise itself entails you investing a small amount of time (~20 minutes) when you can do something meditative—a relaxing drive, a routine task or, ideally, meditation itself. Before you meditate, however, do the following:
1) Determine a future point in time or event
2) Identify something that you want to experience or some way you want to feel at that time
3) Form and focus on a question that presumes you’ve already achieved the desired state
- E.g., “Why did I have a great day?” or “Why did I have an effective meeting?”
4) Let your mind relax into your meditative exercise
- Don’t focus on or try to answer the question during meditation, let it go.
By doing this, you’ll find that, at the end of the day, your mind will have generated responses to your inquiry that will prove to you why the assumed statement is true.
I’m a baseball coach for my 7 year old son’s team and we had just lost our season opener. With coaching 7 year olds, winning every game is far from the top of my list of priorities. Having said that, I definitely wanted the team to experience what it felt like to play a great game and, yes, win. I thought this exercise would be perfect for getting the team in the right state of mind. To that end, I decided to try it out.
During warm-ups just before our next game, I asked each and every player a future-shaping question, “Why did you hit so good today?” And “Why did you have such a great game?” I told them not to answer the question but just to think about it and answer me after the game.
By the looks on their faces, I’m sure they all thought I was crazy, especially when I heard, “coach, we haven’t even played the game yet!” Nevertheless, and in spite of the confusion, I asked and asked away.
We had an amazing season! After the season opener loss, we won the next 12 games in a row and we won 16 of our 20 games in total. Coincidentally or not, of the 4 games we didn’t win, this exercise was not performed.
I don’t know to what degree this exercise helped us win games. We had a very talented group of kids and brilliant assistant coaches who deserve the credit. I will however tell you that I know it made a huge difference in how the kids perceived their performance. On games when we did the exercise, many of the kids came up to me after and explained to me why they had such a great game. Interestingly, each had their own version too. “I practiced a lot coach” or “it’s because I’m really good at baseball” or “because I wanted to get the game ball”, etc. This made me realize that these kids were actually validating their own reality while it was being formed. They were convinced they had played a great game, and could articulate the reasons why, even before the game had ended.
How would it be to finish out every day knowing it was great? How would it be to continually believe that you are living in your ideal state of mind? Well then, I have one question for you, why was it so great?
Whenever we engage as leaders, we have the choice to either inspire motivation and autonomous action or micro-manage the #!~#$` out of people and ultimately demotivate them. Either way, our results will be impacted.
A lot of managers by default engage people in a very operational manner. For example, when a manager of a small business needs to urgently cut payroll checks, he might say to an employee, “please call Bob from Accounts Receivable and ask him when the customer deposits are going to be made.” The employee, having received a very operational task, responds in a very operational manner. In this case, “Bob wasn’t around so I left him a voice mail to call back and let me know.” The manager needs money asap so why didn’t the employee try harder to get hold of Bob?!
Operational engagement sets the manager and the employee up for frustration, disappointment, low morale and, ultimately, lackluster results. Now multiply the phenomena by the number of employees and there you have a culture that does not maximize the value of the people’s experience, knowledge and creativity to meet the company’s goals and, what’s more, is probably not a very fun place to work.
An alternative way is to engage people with a vision. That is to say, help them understand the ‘why’ as well as ‘what success looks like’. In the simple example above, the manager would have received a very different result if he would have communicated the vision, i.e., “all employees, including you and me, need to get their paychecks and the only way this is going to happen is if we get confirmation that customer checks have been deposited. Please help get us paid.”
Articulating and communicating the vision not only frees leaders up from the operational but also provides tremendous motivation for people to enable the vision because it lets them use their experience, knowledge and creativity to reach the end goal—this is how people get job satisfaction!
Now let’s expand the concept to an organization. Say a leader had a company with a vision that, in addition to other descriptors, articulated the following regarding the employee environment:
The ‘Why’: We love to come to our office! It has great energy and attracts amazing employees who inspire creativity, have fun and get positive results!
‘What Does Success Look Like’:
- Our office is beautiful. It is a swanky, red brick, loft with a radiantly lit interior from numerous bay windows. It has hardwood floors, colorful art and really cool eclectic furniture.
- We have private offices, professional meeting rooms and even a getaway room reserved for brainstorming, yoga, listening to music, meditation or even watching movies. (Employees are encouraged to take a 15 minute “recess” in the getaway room at least once per day).
- We have a waiting list of people wanting to join the company because word on the street says that it’s a great place to work. Most candidates come from employee referrals.
- Candidates have learned that they need to be creative, fun and results-oriented to get in the front door; a portion of our website is dedicated to the most creative resumes and cover letters. We use the best ones to open our all-hands meeting and frame them on our walls.
- We have numerous employee letters thanking us for hiring them.
OK, so there it is, an excerpt of an example company vision (sounds like a fun place to work, eh?). But how does this help again? Well, let me ask you, what if all employees helped build this vision both the ‘why’ and ‘what success looks like’ and it was constantly supported/reinforced in the culture:
- Do you think the HR Leader would have programs in place to attract and retain great employees?
- Do you think the Facilities Leader and the employees would take pride in the office (clean up after themselves, decorate, etc.)?
- Do you think the Communications Leader would highlight employee morale in newsletters?
- Do you think that each employee would make a point to be creative, fun and results-oriented?
Right, I think so too! Here’s the great thing about it—the leader wouldn’t need to operationally engage with the HR, Facilities, Communications or every employee in the company to convey all of this. Why? Because it was done with the vision! Implementing a vision helps you be effective and motivational with a relatively low time investment!
Perhaps even most important of all is that the leader is empowering people to make the best decisions with their own experience, knowledge and creativity. A single leader won’t know everything an HR, Facilities or Communications person knows—these people are experts in their fields. If a leader tries to instruct operationally—another word for ‘back seat driving’, they are setting themselves up for frustration and failure. Show people, or better yet, co-create the ‘why’ and ‘what success looks like’ through a vision and trust them to lead—motivation and results are sure to follow!
I have always had a passion to do stand-up comedy because I love to connect with people through laughter.
In spite of my desire, however, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I actually got the courage to take a class and get out there on stage. Since then, I’ve learned some very valuable lessons as a hobbyist stand-up comic. While these lessons are necessary to hold your own in stand-up comedy, I believe them to be invaluable in business.
For anyone who has watched stand-up, you will recognize the need for the basics:
- First, you have to know the material you are going to say (the ‘What’)
- Second, you have to know how you are going to deliver it (the ‘How’)
As I started out, I worked very hard on these two things. I rehearsed the material to where I was a walking Memorex of it. I also practiced the delivery over and over to where I had just the right incantations, inflections and timing. I did this rehearsing right up to the point where I got up on stage. My mental measuring stick for how well I was going to do on stage was, of course the obvious, how much I made the audience laugh?
The big night finally came. The last thought I had before grabbing the microphone was something like “Dear God, please don’t let me forget this material. Please don’t let anyone I know be in the audience and, if they are, please have them struck on the head with a medium-sized object, you know, like maybe a waffle iron. Something to where it won’t do any permanent damage but will make them forget this night…quickly.”
I got up on stage, I presented the material just as I practiced and in return got the wonderful sound of…silence. I went back and looked at the recording. Hmmm…I said all of my material and had all of the rehearsed timing. It was funny in rehearsal, so what happened?
After some time and silent audiences later, my instructor Kurtis Matthews, asked me this simple question, “Chris, why are you on stage in the first place?” While, albeit, not a confidence booster, it was thought-provoking. I responded, “I want to have fun and connect with people through laughter.” His response, “Then do it! If you can have fun and connect with people on stage, everything else follows.”
Sounded crazy but I tried it. I even adjusted my evaluation criteria. If I get up on stage and have fun, then I was successful. The big night came. My name was called. The last thought I had before grabbing the microphone was this, “Dear God, I just want to have fun. P.S. I may need you later.”
I got on stage. I had fun. I laughed. I presented some funny material and they laughed. I forgot a punch line and I acknowledged it, they laughed even more. I was having fun. I was connected with them and it was amazing!
Why did this work?
I learned that in stand-up comedy, if you focus on the material (‘what’) or the delivery (‘how’), you are cementing your feet together and throwing yourself in the river hoping that someone will see you and come to your rescue…or just laugh. Either way, you have no way to react and no way to adjust because you’re not really there. You’re inside of your head with one clear goal in mind…deliver this material (‘what’) in a very prescribed way (‘how’) and then get off stage—quickly.
However, if you focus on your main goal of connecting with people and having fun, (the ‘why’), it will be alive and well in your approach. After all, the audience is not there to ‘listen to material’ or ‘observe perfect timing’; they could get that from Netflix! They are there to have fun as well through connecting with a live comedian. Therefore, when you are having fun, you are immediately connected and already successful because you both share the same ‘why’. Sure you need to have a plan but if your plan is not working, you will adjust because you’re focused on the right ‘why’.
OK, But How Does This Apply In Business Again?
Too many times, I’ve seen individuals and teams focus on ‘What’ they are delivering and ‘How’ they are delivering it, when they’re not even clear on the ‘Why’. “We need to implement Salesforce.com by region!” OK great, what’s the ‘Why’? Is it to make salespeople more productive or is it to connect sales to marketing or connect service to sales or…? Whatever it is, articulate that ‘Why’ to everyone and make it abundantly clear for them. The ‘why’ will impact the day to day approach as well as the overall success of the program. Also, if the ‘why’ is articulated, people can immediately and constantly add value in that domain. Why does value need to be postponed until go-live?! For example, if the ‘why’ was to make salespeople’s lives more productive, information gathered to date, suggestions for process improvement and workarounds for pain points can all help in the interim (as can shortening that 2 hour meeting). Best of all, by articulating the ‘why’, you get people to start thinking on how they can deliver the value of the objective instead of being stuck in the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ which is a recipe for disaster…and crickets.
A vision is nothing more than stating your ‘why’ and then specifying what success looks like within that ‘why’. In stand-up as well as business, articulating that vision puts you on a path towards your objective using every subsequent ‘what’ and ‘how’.
Whether it’s creating a new solution from the ground up, enhancing an existing one or fixing a proverbial train wreck, it is imperative that a leader is very intentional on where s/he invests his/her time.
Think of any effort that a leader engages in as a series of interconnected gears in a concentric construct:
- Center Gear or conceptual center “The Why”– This is the key gear that will ultimately define the pace and path for every other interconnected gear. In a business context, think of this as representing the leader(s) whom articulate(s) the conceptual vision which articulates why we are doing this and what success looks like for the entire solution.
- Inner Circle or planning layer “The What”– Concentrically outward from the center gear, these gears get conceptual direction from the center gear and, in turn, engage with the outer circle gears to execute accordingly. In a business context, think of these gears as representing the planners or solution architects working with subject matter experts to plan the solution.
- Outer Circle or execution layer “The How”– These are the numerous gears that manifest the solution. In a business context, think of these gears as representing the executioners or project managers, operational contributors and contractors that work with end users to realize the concept.
At the conceptual center, before you add the planning and execution, you are working with concepts only and perhaps a few key leaders. Although paramount to the success of the operation, a change at this time will only impact ideas and few individuals. However, once you start adding the planning and execution layers, a change at the conceptual center will impact exponentially more individuals as well as end users. You can see from this construct, once all layers are in play, any change to what success looks like for the solution are overwhelmingly frustrating, confusing and expensive. This is too often how deliverables are unsuccessful, timelines are missed and budgets are blown.
Not only do some leaders not spend sufficient time at the conceptual layer, they actually miss it altogether and go directly to planning or, worse yet, execution. How will we know if a solution is successful if it’s not articulated through a vision at the conceptual center?
STOP THE CRAZINESS!
As leaders, take the time to focus your efforts at the conceptual center. Make sure that the ideas are sound and key leaders are completely aligned on the “why”, articulating what success looks like before you add the planning or execution layer. If you can articulate and align the inner circle to a conceptual vision, the planning and execution layer are enabled with a conceptual target and therefore set up for success. Yes, it does take time to go through this process but, as this framework demonstrates, it is much more efficient, effective, fun, motivational and less expensive than making a conceptual change after the fact.
It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.
A vision represents the future. Put another way, a vision doesn’t represent a ‘place that I could get to with the resources I have now’. To describe the future in a vision context, you have to let go of everything you know about today and let your desire come to life.
If you want to be an actor but are a banker right now, say it! If you want to do own an NFL Team but are $10,000 in debt, say it! You must let go of the way things are for them to ever change to how you want them to be. The visioning process enables you how to do this.
No way you say? Let’s look at a case study of an individual you might know…
His father died when he was six years old, and, since his mother worked, he was required to cook for his family. He dropped out of school in seventh grade. When his mother remarried, he ran away from home because his stepfather beat him. He falsified his date of birth and enlisted in the United States Army at the age of sixteen, completing his entire service commitment in Cuba. During his early years, he held many jobs, including: steamboat pilot, insurance salesman, railroad fireman and farmer. He had a son, Harland, Jr., who died at an early age, and two daughters. At the age of 40, he cooked dishes and other meals for people who stopped at his service station in Corbin, Kentucky. Since he did not have a restaurant, he served customers in his adjacent living quarters. In 1955 at age 65, his store failed due to the new Interstate reducing his restaurant’s customer traffic. He had just received $105 from his first Social Security check.
OK, so, if you were to take that ‘as-is’ information and put yourself in his shoes, how would you vision for yourself? Would you say, “I could be a millionaire if I focus on my passions through my vision?” Or, would you go with the way things are now and simply state, “well, I’ve got some experience at different things and a little bit of money to get by, I should save really well and get odd jobs that supplement my income, especially given my age?”
If you were this individual and went with the latter, then my friend, 1) you would have never enjoyed the taste of Kentucky Fried Chicken and 2) (presumably more important) you would have never cashed out with $2 million dollars! That’s right, Colonel Sanders had not started his own business until he was 65! But, he started cooking meals for people at age 40 and developing a vision or, as we say today, his “secret recipe” over the next nine years.
To do this, he had to let go of the as-is. In other words, he had to stop that incessant critic in the back of his mind that constantly told him:
- I’m not a good business man; my business just failed
- I didn’t go to college, I can’t compete at the same level
- I have to maintain a service station
- I’ve got commitments and don’t have any extra time
- I’m too old to be taking a risk
He had to simply dream about the future and guess what? He probably enjoyed the hell out of himself and he won—his way!
OK well, what if he didn’t win you say? What if his chicken recipe was for not and he ended up just as poor as he started? I’ll still bet he had a pretty great time doing what he loved.
Let go of today and vision a future for tomorrow that is based upon your passion!
I was the program leader for a visioning effort at a Fortune 500 Company where the target was being able to demonstrate the use of its own products aka ‘drink your own wine’.
The company was committed to building the vision, and it dedicated the right leaders for the job—credible and very influential. These leaders not only provided valuable input but they also became owners as well as ambassadors of the vision itself.
In addition to the vision program, the leaders also had a tremendous amount of pressure to deliver ‘drink your own wine’ quick hits, or short-term, tactical efforts. This quick hit delivery tempo was part of the company’s culture. The common belief was these quick hits would keep the overall vision program visible and credible.
One of the first quick hits was an internal ‘Service Operations Center’. This center would provide technical support to the rest of the company which would soon be using its own products per the vision. The initial plan for the operations center was to deploy it offshore. This way, the company could provide 24×7 coverage while saving 40% in labor. Smart, right?
Then, along came a vision…
In a short period after the quick hit project was launched, the company finalized the ‘drink your own wine’ vision. Amongst other things, this vision articulated a state-of-the art operations center. This center would be a place where big-screen TV’s would display global maps monitoring the company’s products, capabilities and throughput. This operations center, in fact, would pin-point potential issues before any employee had an indication of the problem, all made possible by the company’s products.
Best of all, visiting customers would see this slick, professional operation when they went into the onshore facility and—uhhh, wait a minute—-did you just hear a record scratch? (For those of you born after 1990, that’s a bad thing). If the company was going to have a state-of-the-art, onshore operation then what was it doing building it offshore?
This was a quick hit launched by smart people with great intentions. However, it still went awry. In fact, the quick hit had a spend upwards of $1 million by the time it was realized that it wasn’t in alignment with the vision. What went wrong? In short, it was not aligned with the vision. An integrated vision broadens your playing field so you can see all of the applicable considerations, in this case ‘marketing potential’ in addition to just ‘cost savings’. This is why having an integrated vision before you launch costly implementations is so critical.
OK, we’ve all done it at one time or another. You need a screwdriver for a particular task but the butter knife is more convenient. Of course we all know the result when this happens; first, the butter knife gets scratched. Second, it ruins the thread on the screw. Third, the fit won’t be secured and finally, you, the end user, walk away with a frustrated experience.
Now, think about if this were a living breathing project with real people. The butter knife would be feeling a lack of confidence because s/he just couldn’t do the job quite like a screwdriver. The screwdriver would be sitting on the sidelines frustrated because the butter knife got chosen all because s/he had a closer relationship with the decision maker. The screw, or finished project, would be deemed a failure. And, finally, the end users would be completely dissatisfied.
This is why many situations are broken. It is not because people don’t have valuable skillsets or they are not well intentioned. A butter knife will NEVER be as good as a screwdriver when it comes to securing screws. Likewise, if you were to present a screwdriver at the dinner table, it would be laughable. But that won’t stop both the butter knife and the screwdriver from taking it completely personal and beating themselves up for the fact that they just can’t live up to the performance of the other one.
So how could a vision help? To answer that, think about two example demands from a fictitious manager:
- The screw to the front door is loose and needs to be tightened
- The customer entrance door is wobbly; it needs to be easy to use and aesthetically pleasing to demonstrate our company’s quality which will help us reach our profitability goals
These two are very brief and simple statements but think about the difference in results. In the first example, why not reach for a butter knife? From the employee’s perspective, s/he has accomplished the goal in the least amount of time assuming the knife is more convenient. And so what if the equipment is damaged after the fact? That’s someone else’s job to replace them anyway.
Alternatively, the employee in the second example not only would take the time to reach for the screwdriver because s/he realizes that the company depends on the door to indicate the levels of the company’s quality. But also, and just as important, the employee knows the end state and how his/her goals are aligned to it.
This is a simple example but is demonstrative of how thought, in the form of a vision, can impact the actions of individuals, groups and ultimately, a company’s results.