Reality Street ain’t got no Vision

A Strategy Rejoinder to The Death of Architecture

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A few weeks ago I wrote a piece rather grandiosely called The Death of Architecture, insisting that, because the future can be thought of as something of an illusion, a determined focus on immediate results will get you further in your technology life than putting great efforts into what we lovingly call strategy, especially architecture strategy. Today I want to put that focus into perspective by elaborating on how the illusory qualities of time and strategy can make the immediate more productive, useful, worthwhile and.. well.. fun. Because, for all my words about the here and now, none of it has any meaning without a vision.

I knew when writing the article that a complimentary point of view would have to follow, but last week I was poking through the bookcase for something to read when I found an old copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Although my copy is from the fifties, the original came out in 1936 so I took it down anticipating an hour or so chuckling at anachronistic views on work, women and social structures. But far from it. Any sadness at being deprived the minor pleasure of calling out “Darling.. according to this book you’re meant to smilingly greet me at the door each night with your hair and make-up done, hand me my pipe and slippers, and point to a steaming lard and offal pie on the table” before preparing to run, was replaced with a degree of rather curious astonishment that a book written so long ago, albeit formative in its genre, could be so very relevant today.

I’m not a big fan of these “how to succeed” books. They seem to me to make their authors succeed very well in terms of book sales, but if they really worked then surely there would be a lot more successful businessmen ascribing their wealth and beautiful steaming-lard-and-offal-pie-cooking wives to having discovered a copy of “Get to the Top by Wearing the Right Socks” in the departure lounge at JFK.

It’s not that what a lot of them say is wrong or deliberately deceitful. No doubt if I thought I had the formula for success I would share it in a lucrative book style. It’s that what they all say is dressed up common sense - and, more or less, they all say what Dale Carnegie said in 1936.

Everyone needs a purpose so that they can feel fulfilled achieving it.

Actually that’s my phrase, but I distilled it from his various directives in the book. And indeed every book that’s ever been written about success and good management. In other words, we all either need a vision, or we need to be providing a vision to others that compliments one we already have.

Measuring Vision

A vision is a clear and motivating image of the future. It engages with our emotions and desires, and spurs us on to move mountains to achieve it. I don’t see a vision as synonymous with an objective - a vision is a purpose that implies relevance. An objective could be to get the laundry done or balance the household accounts. Important, yes, but not something I would define by a vision. A vision has to show me not just the end result, which must be good for me on some level; it must include how I contribute to getting there. I must know every hour of every day how my actions bring the vision closer. So a vision is measured by its ability to stir my desire, its clarity and the attendant activities that are relevant to me.

A Corporate Vision

Employees often bemoan the lack of vision in companies they work for, so you’d think that it might be a hard thing to articulate. I don’t think so. I think corporate leaders who appear not to have a vision either genuinely don’t have one (i.e. they literally just come to work each day and battle through current issues with no thought of planning or positioning for the future) or for some reason their vision is not sharable. In my experience the latter is far more common than the former.

Let’s say you form a start-up. You come up with a great idea, a novel marketing approach and an elegant business plan to back it up. That’s Vision 1.0 and it gets you funding and opens the doors to all those employees you are going to need to realise it. Time passes and success comes by the bucket load. Your corporate culture is vibrant and exciting and bonuses are big. The ups and downs of applying complex technology don’t seem so bad because you are all working towards the vision. People are happy. They have a purpose and feel fulfilled achieving it.

At some point the investors naturally want to see some return on their cash. You as an entrepreneur will sooner or later also want a fresh challenge. Starting a company is hard, there’s an awful lot more tolerance for mistakes when running a successful one. Now Vision 2.0 raises its head. Your two main options are IPO or sell. Either, or both, may make sense to your company. But in realising this vision you have to get all grown-up and mature as an organisation - there will be budget controls, a closer eye kept on those bonuses, less tolerance for technology mistakes, stricter HR rules around career progression, outsiders with mature company experience being brought in. It’s not exactly a vision to maintain that vibrant ambience and galvanise the team. So of course it appears as if the company has lost its way. And the bemoaning starts.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve worked at a few companies in this state and have found that all you need to do is create Vision 3.0 which takes all the fun and purpose in Vision 1.0 and combines a little of the sensible controls of Vision 2.0 - it just requires you to realise that your vision isn’t the same as everybody else’s. Without being insincere (because if you are it will be seen a mile off) you must tap into the motivations of the changing culture and show what the new success looks like. Sure, it’s a different purpose than before and fulfilment will now come from aspects of working to beat the competition, new products, or improvements in service measures. Your vision might be to sell, but you have to extract from that the themes that have meaning to the rest of the company because they’ll need to be continuing it long after you are stuck into your next challenge.

Team Vision

If a corporate vision must be a clear and engaging rallying call to teams, a team vision must translate that into relevant purpose for individuals.

The board’s vision to add to the company floatation price might translate to the executive directors vision to launch a new product and beat the competition, but that has to translate to working closer with product managers, building better designs, coding faster with fewer bugs, testing better and deploying with fewer operational issues. What one person does on one day does make a difference. It’s at this level where the immediate and the future meet, where strategy informs tactical actions, and where successes are eventually realised.

Personal Vision

When I just wrote software for a living, life was pretty simple. I’d go for a job interview and get asked questions about coding. They wanted me to code, or design, and so it was taken as read that I would feel fulfilled doing just that. As I got into management I got asked more questions designed to probe my more philosophical side. It wasn’t just about what they wanted - they started to ask me what I wanted. Answering this properly required some serious introspection.

To answer the question, I came up with what I call The Friday Test. I can’t say for sure what my perfect job or daily routine is, I know when I love something and I know when I am generally frustrated by a lack of progress. But I can say that when I drive home on a Friday, with the weekend before me, I want to be able to look back on the week and feel like those five days of my life made a difference to something. Perhaps not every day can be a hotbed of productivity, but I like to have made an impact, however small, somewhere at least once a week. It might be something as public as giving a presentation that inspired someone to do something differently, solving a technical dilemma that moved a project forward, given some useful advice, brokered a productive conversation between two other people, or just made a plan that will allow more to happen next week.

It’s not much to ask for myself, and it’s not much for others to ask of me, but aligned to a vision it’s a very powerful concept.

Life Vision

And as I write this it occurs to me that this personal, group and corporate vision mantra applies to other aspects of life equally well. Many of the world’s ills - crime, terrorism - are seeded into individuals precisely when they feel they have no objective, vision or relevance or when others superimpose their vision at their expense. Without for a moment excusing or justifying the results, it is a thought-provoking and deeply existential notion that humans with a vision for the future can achieve so much and yet so easily be drawn to darker things when they lack one.

Visions and Myths

The complimentary perspective to the view that everything is all about now, is that you can qualitatively affect what happens now by having an inspiring vision that puts the now into some context and lends it purpose. Karen Armstrong in her insightful book A Short History of Myth makes the point that one of the defining, and entirely human, characteristics of creating stories that lift us above the prosaic and often mundane aspects of everyday life is that it informs the way we behave. That’s how start-ups get created in the first place, and how people got to the moon, because someone could translate their imagination of what-might-be into just the right words to lift others to achieve great things.