You don’t need a visionary to build a company with vision

You probably aren’t going to hire the next Elon Musk.
You probably aren’t going to hire the next Elon Musk.
Image: AP Photo/John Raoux
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When most people think of “vision,” they imagine a leader like Elon Musk or Walt Disney. But a “Great Leader” is only part of the picture—and not something companies can institutionalize.

Apple, for example, is an architecture built around the brilliance of Steve Jobs. While current Apple CEO Tim Cook is a fabulous executive, Jobs was Jobs. Since his passing, Apple hasn’t yet introduced a game-changing product. Following an icon is tough. The pressure to sustain outsized performance can tempt leaders to take shortcuts, such as Apple’s recent battery performance scandal.

While few organizations can rely on visionary leaders like Jobs, all companies seeking to prosper long-term must have vision. Not random inspiration, but vision as an organizational capability. The three disciplines of vision are sensing, foresight, and projection. They’re each about seeing, but in different, complementary ways.

Discipline 1: Sensing beyond the core

Why leave serendipity to chance? The better eyes you have in potentially relevant environments, the more likely you’ll discover threats and opportunities you didn’t expect—ahead of the competition.

To develop this information pipeline, you’ll first need to define what’s relevant beyond your core business. Consider sources of information you don’t typically track: You might want to engage with startup communities, learn from non-competing companies in analogous industries (they’ll be eager to learn from you), or collaborate with university research labs. Some outreach will be human, some can be automated.

Second, ensure the right information reaches the right decision makers within your company. Determine who internally needs what and why. One person’s distraction could be another’s critical insight. Given the diversity of information you’ll collect, when and with whom to share will be an essential decision. The better your people understand what’s important to others across the company, the better they’ll be at proactively sharing.

IBM’s group HorizonWatch, which develops views of the future relevant for the company and its clients, includes a company-wide network of employees interested in technology trends. The team searches for trends across technologies and industries, developing perspectives and sharing insights for both IBM’s businesses and their clients.

Third, hold people accountable. Intelligence from outside the core can be too easily marginalized. Those receiving insights need to pay attention and know when to act.

Discipline 2: Foresight that enables prioritization

Sensing alone leads nowhere. Companies often see what’s happening but fail to act.

IBM is a perfect example: The company was nearly non-existent in the commercial internet until 1999, six years after the launch of the World Wide Web. It held strategy offsites and built slide decks, but failed to translate ideas to action.

On the other hand, going ‘all in’ too early can lead to disaster. Former JC Penny CEO Ron Johnson, for instance, tried to transform the 100+ year old company all at once and nearly throttled it.

Navigating through uncertainty requires options that keep the company relevant regardless of how the future unfolds. This requires foresight broad enough to avoid being blindsided, while focused enough to be actionable. It involves considering multiple scenarios for how the future might look.

We can’t predict the future in detail, but we can see the contours. Trends and forces such as changing demographics and consumer behaviors, new technologies or regulatory regimes suggest a variety of possibilities. Imagine what might occur based on available data, then strategically select plausible futures to invest against—not simply an extrapolation from today. Foresight is the ability to translate from insight to potentialities, thus enabling prioritization.

In 2010, Castrol, the global lubricants company, undertook a major foresight program. (Disclosure: my firm, Clareo, was lead advisor for Castrol’s initiative.) They explored phenomena like electric vehicles, self-driving cars, ride sharing—all developments then largely ignored by the industry. (FYI, electric vehicles require no engine oil.) Castrol was thus able to engage and place small bets before their competitors. No one knew in detail how this would transpire, but anyone paying attention could have prepared.

Discipline 3: Projecting the future you desire

Don’t just let the future happen to you. Visionary leaders are so-called because they’ve generated something meaningful beyond what others thought possible. Vision’s third component is projecting, which involves defining what you seek to manifest, exploring possibilities, and articulating them within real contexts.

Walt Disney, for instance, didn’t only imagine futures—he set about creating them. His vision evolved iteratively, through experiments and even bankruptcy. After pioneering animated films, Disney created what became one of history’s longest running TV shows, Disneyland. From this Disney projected his concept for the world’s quintessential theme park.

Institutionalizing projection starts with enhancing sensing and foresight. As more people within your company develop insightful, data-based perspectives on the future, they’ll be better able to define plausible visions to create. It’s the responsibility of top leadership to encourage this ferment, support experimentation and then invest to make a selected few happen.

More than just magic

Last October, Disney CEO Bob Iger summed up the challenge and role of vision when explaining Disney’s decision to remove their content from Netflix to bolster Disney’s own streaming services. “At some point, we felt it would be necessary for us to not only be disrupted, but to disrupt our business ourselves,” Iger said. “We felt that we were no longer seeing a speed bump of disruption … What we were seeing instead was real, profound and permanent change.”

If you don’t create the future you’ll become the past. Thriving long term requires market intelligence beyond the core, constantly updated foresight, and clarity about what futures you desire to create. Companies that build vision as a core capability will generate opportunities and the insight to know which ones to pursue. Or you could simply hope for magic.

Robert Wolcott is a clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.