A Vision of Purpose
The State of Play
It is generally agreed that digital transformation has enormous potential, it influences how companies structure themselves, how they go-to-market, and how they compete in their market. With any great transformative potential, plotting the journey ahead is complicated and primarily uncharted. The difference between those that succeed and those that fail will be creating a proactive strategy that maximises both customer and employee engagement along the way - creating a vision.
As many organisations know, the ability to create an inspiring digital vision will play a crucial role in the rate and adoption of digital transformation. However, despite being aware of this, very few organisations have managed to put together a compelling vision of their future, I want to explore why.
Every organisation thinks that it has a unique set of problems, when the truth is, every organisation has the same set of problems: the ability to convert vision into action. But what actually is a vision? What are the building blocks to create something that drives that action we’re yearning for? If I ask the question, in your organisation, when people utter the words ‘digital transformation’, what do they think? Do they think the same thing? Or at the very least something similar? Odds are, there’s confusion, a lack of clarity.
Take the following two visions for the future of America given by two Presidents: John F Kennedy’s vision for America: ‘Put a man on the moon’; Donald Trump’s vision for America: ‘Make America Great Again’.
Whose vision was realised? Whose wasn’t?
What’s the difference?
The extent to which leaders successfully articulate a purpose is central, not only to how they inspire action, but the very concept of creating a vision. A common myth is that the success and failure of any vision hinges on the ability to effectively articulate this common purpose. However, with this, the emphasis becomes the specific words or rhetoric used. Research shows that this causes what is known as Blurry Vision Bias - the human instinct to perceive the future abstractly when looking into the distant future.
When we think abstractly we consider the future in general rather than specific terms. This generalisation is what is causing each individual employee to picture the future of the company, post digital transformation, differently. To galvanise that elusive action, we need a vision that articulates a clear future that acts as a single reference point. That is what gives today’s action a purpose, it’s contributing to that single future that we’re all working towards. But how do we generate that single reference point?
To overcome our natural bias towards abstract generalisations, we need to think vividly to create a “portrait” of an ideal future - the very definition of the word “vision”. To achieve this we need to use unambiguous image-based rhetoric rooted in observable objects and emotions. The more specific we are, the closer we get to that unrefuted single reference point. By giving us something observable, something we can feel and experience, we trigger emotion that brings with it a deeper sense of clarity. E.g. the COVID-19 pandemic - you are much more likely to feel the weight of concern of the pandemic if one of your family members dies as a result of the virus than from reading the statistics on the number of deaths on the evening news. Why? - as morbid as it sounds, experiencing it for yourself creates a vivid depiction in your mind rather than an abstract generalisation that the statistics provide. This vivid depiction is much more likely to drive action like wearing a mask or socially distancing in public because you have personally suffered from the effects.
Bringing it back to digital transformations, something particularly prevalent amongst digital visions, is the trap of idyllic change postulations. They are thought provoking but not action provoking, pushing employees to only consider the future rather than galvanising action around a single reference point and a common purpose.
Meaning-based vs. Experience-based
To understand this to a greater degree, we need to look at the differing effects of experience-based processes that drive imagination and the meaning-based processes that drive abstract understanding.
Language is centred in the meaning-based system of our brain. Here we process the meaning of words, symbols and other concepts by assessing data and thinking abstractly. As a result, taking it back to the COVID example, the statistics on the nightly news only allow us to think abstractly because we’re locked in the meaning-based system of our brain.
By comparison, our experience-based system processes sensory information and powers our ability to imagine events. It is the part of our mind that transports us to a given time and place when we think about it. If I think about my favourite holiday I can picture it in detail in my head, I can smell the sea, feel the sand and the wind, and picture the colours - this is my imagination generating a vision.
Therefore, if we want to create a meaningful vision to drive us towards that single reference point, we need to harness the experience-based system of our brain, not the meaning-based system. We cannot galvanise our employees around our digital transformation initiative with statistics on how much it’s going to increase their productivity or how much time it’s going to save them because it’s too abstract. It means something different to everyone. The problem is, we cannot experience a future that has not yet transpired, so how can we activate the experience-based system?
To trick the mind into triggering the experience-based system, leaders must mentally project themselves into the future during vision creation. By projecting themselves into the future, they can lean on past experiences to vividly detail that single future their digital transformation will bring. We know that the language centre is situated in the meaning-based system of our minds, but if we trigger the experience-based system first, we are much more likely to use image-based rhetoric simply because abstract words will not accurately convey the detail of the vision projecting in our mind’s eye.
JFK’s vision of putting a man on the moon triggers our experienced-based system and harnesses a clear image in our imagination - it’s unambiguous. It implicitly defines America’s target of becoming the greatest country in the world because it is galvanising action to achieve a common purpose, something that has never been done by anyone else. Trump’s message is far more explicit, but it’s trapped in the meaning-based system. Your image of a ‘great’ America is likely to be completely different to mine. This lack of clarity is missing a call to action and lacks a common purpose Americans can pull together around.
Efficient vs. Analytical Thinkers - Our Model Leader
Our best leaders are efficient thinkers. Efficient thinkers let mental imagery influence the way that they communicate. This means they are less likely to let controlled logic override imaginative thinking because they are less likely to let abstract semantics affect the creativity of their vision. In other words, efficient thinkers let their vivid images of the future dictate the search for words as they look to communicate their thoughts.
By comparison, analytical thinkers think about the world in terms of general concepts, connecting the dots between different principles rather than using their imagination to see the end goal as a whole. This means that analytical thinkers have a stronger barrier between the experience-based and the meaning-based system than efficient thinkers.
Only the top layer of a company has the bird’s eye view required to produce a compelling vision. The real benefits of transformation come from unlocking value that permeates the organisation as a whole, not incremental, isolated change. Only the executives have the vantage point necessary to understand how various individual silos can become a whole. So that begs the question, do we have too many analytical thinkers in executive vantage points and do we need more efficient thinkers driving strategy and vision creation?
It is easy to assume that the solution to blurry vision bias is to focus more on selecting the right words and phrases. Since the future has not yet transpired, it is impossible to contemplate the future with sensory information. Therefore, we have to transcend our natural inclination to think about the future in abstract terms. If we want to create an effective vision, we have to consciously activate the experience-based system by intervening with mental projection of the future, as if it has already happened.
As a final note: Leaders who tell stories are often more effective at communicating a vision compared to those who only communicate values. A story uses the imagination, it uses vivid images rather than the abstract generalisations values often communicate.