Industry January 2013

The Vision Thing

Leadership is a constant battered by fashion. The best sellers come and go, and their authors flame out trying to extend the brand. We all seem to have a huge appetite for answers, and want to find that edge or glint of an idea that will secure the required result.

However, the antidote to all this trendy activity is often a clear dose of reality.

Many years ago in Australia, I read a comment from an American management guru that said: “90% of the books purchased on management sit on shelves unread”. In typical Aussie sceptic mode, I thought: “What a lot of rubbish!”

A casual scan along my bookshelves was refreshing—it was a journey of good intentions with many of the books not yet read! Somehow, just having them there made me feel I was going to get smarter—a bit like spinning Buddhist prayer wheels—a lot easier than actually having to read the sutras! I believed osmotic forces would somehow transfer the good bits into my brain (I’m still waiting, by the way).

At Dale Carnegie Training, we have developed a Cycle of Performance Improvement and have nominated the “knowledge trap” as one of the key barriers to growth.

This refers to providing people with information or knowledge in the form of materials, such as books, or from the contents of training. It is all great stuff, but is not sticky. It doesn’t last and, even worse, it doesn’t get used. Thus, we get trapped in self-delusion about the osmotic process, thinking it will work for us even if we don’t do anything.

We all want to believe the activity of absorption (reading) is equal to actually absorbing the learning (doing). Spin that knowledge wheel and pray for the best!

We usually only manage to get new ideas or information into our short-term memory and, unfortunately, it soon disappears. The really critical issue becomes behaviour change—how to translate the knowledge into actions that produce results.

The knowledge trap has to be bridged through activities to get the knowledge out of its academic constructs (I know it) and into practical usage (I use it). Unless you actually do something with it, the information only stays in your head briefly and never gets into your body!

This is where long-term memory is created because you are influencing behaviour. In sport, this is called neuron grooving—the repetition of the same action until you can do it without thought, and can keep reproducing the best outcome, time after time.

So, if fashion isn’t going to do it for us—given we don’t even read most of what fashion has to say anyway—what are some basics we can revisit?

“Getting the right people on the right bus and in the right seat” is a favourite, if fashionable, quote. However, what comes next is even more critical—getting them all moving in the same direction.

As the leader, how do we get people to push or pull in the same way? Articulating why we need to move at all is a good starting point (reality check: do you do this)?

Explaining what we are moving towards also helps (done this too, have you)? How we should be moving could work wonders for teamwork. We call most of this the “vision thing”.

There was a big boom in consultants working firm leaders over on vision creation to the point it has become a cliché and is almost a parody of the original intention. After all that time and money spent, you would think the whole vision thing was a done deal, but surprisingly it isn’t.

What is the vision thing anyway? Nothing complicated really; just a view on what success might look like, so we can recognise it and strive more effectively to attain it.

Yet, when you read vision statements posted on firms’ walls and often penned by the president, they are usually long and totally forgettable. Try asking employees if they can repeat the vision (always a good party trick). You are in little danger of staff being able to pull that one off. How about if we come down to your shop and try it with your team?

It can’t be that hard, can it? The idea makes sense—unite people around a desired outcome by articulating what you want to happen. Why not make it brief and to the point so that everyone, including the newest and most junior person, can not only rattle it off at will, but can also explain what it is about?

How about getting the red-hot neuron grooving process firing by having people repeat the vision—from memory! Japan loves a chourei (morning assembly) to start the day, and these typical gatherings make a great platform to review why we are all there in the first place and what we are trying to achieve.

Have each work group start the day by asking one person to repeat the vision and talk briefly about what it means to them. You can cover a lot of other stuff for the day in the chourei, but that “vision thing” provides some serious glue.

This takes about two minutes, costs nothing, unifies the point for everyone and is fashion-proof. Take another look at the idea and give it a go!