26 January 2012

More on The End of Vision

I’ve received some considerable feedback about my article on the Linked 2 Leadership blog, “The End of Vision.” Almost all of the feedback expresses appreciation for introducing the idea of tactility—understanding the intentional and mindful, sustained effects throughout the wider social, material, and natural environments among an organization’s various constituencies.

I distinguish tactility from vision – an imagining of objectives to be attained in the unknowable (and most certainly uncontrollable) future. I argue that vision is obsolescent in the contemporary, UCaPP world; that the pervasive proximity which is characteristic of our times precludes vision as a useful sensory metaphor because it is our only sense that necessarily requires distance and separation to work. Tactility, on the other hand, is our most proximate of senses, the one that best corresponds to today’s reality.

Those who took issue with my rather emphatic negation of vision as continuing to provide useful guidance for leaders unanimously point to the ability of vision to inspire. For example, as Dr. Tom Cocklereese notes, “vision statements have motivated people to move heaven and earth to achieve new heights.” Another commenter observes that vision provides, “passion and energy and ultimately what engages and motivates others.” Without question, I agree that passion, energy, and motivation are vital to inspiring organization members to innovate, achieve greatness, and change the(ir) world. An inspiring vision may contribute to helping people discover their passion—Dr. Tom points to the inspiring visions of Moses, Kennedy, and King Jr. But it would be a grave mistake to conflate vision with passion, inspiration, and motivation. The two are not equivalent, or even necessarily connected.

And that’s the problem: Too many organizational leaders assume that the vision statement they (and perhaps several others at the top of the organization) craft will necessarily, if not automatically, inspire passion and greatness. Sadly, often bleak organizational realities might inspire only cynicism, mistrust, and – let’s face it – mediocrity. How many of our leaders – corporate and otherwise – are truly able to inspire genuine passion that can move nations like those to whom Dr. Tom refers?

Have a look at a sampling of vision statements from well-known companies. Many of them read like the laundry list of next year’s key performance indicators, written in bland corporatese. Some of them are downright aggressive and negative, using words like “destroy” and “crush.” They might inspire the sociopaths that often tend to occupy “executive row,” but as an inspirational vision for today’s world...? The majority of them have a vision to “dominate,” or to “be the best,” or to be the “world leader,” and my favourite nonsensical and useless vision-statement phrase, to “exceed expectations” (as if the organization’s leaders have any clue whatsoever what those amorphous expectations might actually be, whether they are reasonable or rational, whether exceeding them is actually what will benefit their constituencies, and so forth). Especially when committed to paper (or screen), they are almost unanimously devoid of passion, absent of inspiration, stripped of their ability to transform cynical compliance to engaged commitment.

More important, as I point out in my article, in most cases organizational vision becomes a type of blinkered vision, with a single-minded focus on achieving the goals and objectives the vision describes. We have all experienced the destruction and dysfunction throughout the world wrought by single-minded corporate, political, xenophobic, and megalomaniacal visions over the past several decades. We have learned that what might have seemed like a good idea at the time turns out disastrously—made considerably worse by a leadership determined to “stay the course,” even in the face of so-called unintended consequences, code for “unanticipated effects.”

No one could reasonably argue against the premise that today’s world is extraordinarily complex. By definition, this means that nothing of significance in our world is deterministically predictable. Today’s “vision” that certain goals and objectives are right, and appropriate, and true may turn out to be tomorrow’s folly. The direction inspired by vision may create unforeseen, emergent effects that may be worse than unintended—they may be considerably at odds with the fundamental values of the organization, and the values of the organization’s members (which is precisely what I found in my research: in traditional bureaucratic, administratively controlled, hierarchical organizations, “individual humanity scales to collective collective callousness”).

Vision was the appropriate sensory metaphor for organizational guidance in an age that was deterministic, more predictable, more linearly explainable by clockwork, industrialized models. In other words, it was appropriate for the 19th and 20th centuries. Even though the reality of our environment has already transformed to become the UCaPP world that we now experience, people take a long time to catch up (about 300 years from the time the dominant form of communications changes; by my estimation, we’re about 168 years through the transition). Vision has had its day; it’s time to embrace the immediacy and presence of tactility in its stead.

So here’s my suggestion: Find your own tactility. Whom are you going to touch and how are you going to touch them today—and each and every day hereafter? Craft that into a statement which expresses what it is that you do that inspires you, motivates you, and most of all, expresses your passion. Take that personal tactility statement with you wherever you go. Embrace it. Live it authentically. Use is as the answer to the cocktail party question, “so what do you do?” Combine it with the tactilities of those with whom you collaborate in your workplace, enabling your organizational tactility to emerge. Most of all, be mindful of the effects you enable and create throughout your world. (For those who are interested, here’s considerably more on Vision, Values, Tactility, and Mission.)

P.S. Here’s mine: “I enable and create great environments of engagement.” And, I say it with passion!

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