I have been thinking about the importance of having a vision recently, both in the context of companies and also my own life. The lessons of Built to Last continue to resonate with me, especially the message of “Preserve the core, but stimulate progress.” The companies that had long-term success were the ones that had a vision that gave them criteria by which to make decisions beyond merely making profits. This has also been recently relevant with the retirement of Bill Gates, as several articles mention Microsoft’s initial vision of putting a computer on every desk and in every home, an initially ludicrous idea that has now been mostly achieved in the developed world. Several commentators have felt that since achieving that goal, Microsoft has drifted in its focus, and needs a new vision to move them forward.
Vision is important because it provides constraints when making decisions. In some sense, vision answers a meta-question about decisions – how do we make decisions? Every decision at a company gets made by criteria which can range from “what will be the most profitable next quarter” to “whatever the boss says” to “our customer asked for it” to “what will be the most fun to do”. Without such decision-making criteria, every decision would take forever to make, as every possibility would have to be considered. The existence of such criteria constrains the decision space down to a manageable set of possibilities to be considered.
If those meta-criteria aren’t clear, though, then decision making becomes much harder. At each decision point, the question is first “how will we make this decision?” and once that is decided, then the decision itself can be made in accordance with the criteria chosen. Given the variety of criteria listed in the last paragraph, this can lead to inconsistent decisions, which means the company is essentially doing a random walk in decision space and may make no progress towards any goals. It also leads to confusion among the employees as it’s unclear what decisions are the right ones to make, as the criteria by which those decisions will be judged keep changing.
Some companies try to address this question by putting processes in place by which to make decisions, step-by-step guides to guide employees. These processes may even use different decision criteria for different decisions. The problem with such processes is that they don’t cover new situations, so employees need to consult their bosses to ensure they make the “right” decision by company standards. This slows the company response time down, which means that it may miss the chance to exploit new opportunities (shades of The Innovator’s Dilemma).
Having a strong corporate vision in place helps with all of these issues. Employees will understand the criteria by which decisions get made. For instance, Nordstrom’s is well-known for its customer service, and at one point, their employee handbook essentially boiled down to “Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. … Rule #1: Use good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” If a customer comes in and wants to return something bought at another store, Nordstrom’s will accept (including the legendary tale of a customer returning tires to this clothing store).
By providing constraints on the decision space, a long-term vision makes decisions easier. With limited resources, constraints allow the company to prioritize more effectively. 37 Signals is a software company that espouses the design philosophy of embracing constraints as a way of finding better and more creative solutions. Rather than try to be everything to everybody, 37signals recommends deciding what you stand for and sticking to that vision. Even Google, which has no resource constraints at the moment, is claiming to value constraints in product design, and has its own corporate philosophy with ten points to guide employees.
I’m starting to try to apply the importance of constraints and vision to my own life. Like many other non-commital Gen-X-ers, I tend to make my decisions by always choosing the option which gives me more options, and never to close the door on a possibility. At this point in my life, that method of decision making is starting to be counter productive, as trying to continue getting more options is precluding me from pursuing any of the options I actually have. I’m fortunate to be in a position where I have so many options, including where to live, where to work, etc. But I think it may be time to start narrowing options down, which brings me back to this idea of vision and constraints. I need to come up with a vision for myself to set the criteria by which I choose among the options available to me.
The terrifying thought for a Gen-X-er is the idea of locking into a path (or a vision) and then finding out a few years later that it’s the wrong one, and all that time and effort was wasted. One thing I need to remember is that doing something is better than doing nothing – a year of experience doing the “wrong” thing is still better than a year spent dithering about what to do. And I have also learned that even when I change my life’s direction, the time spent on the original vision/goal is not wasted – I can apply the previously learned lessons to my new direction. When I finally gave up my dreams of becoming a physicist, it was a really hard decision for me, as it felt like I was throwing away the ten years of my life which had been devoted to physics. However, much of what I learned as a physicist has continued to be useful throughout my career, including the approach to problem solving, the data analysis capabilities, and the instrumentation experience I used when working on CellKey. One of the ingenious parts of the human brain is that it always finds a way to retroactively harmonize one’s previous experience with one’s current direction.
To some extent, this post is an attempt to convince myself that it is more important to have a vision than what the specific vision is. If the vision is wrong, it can be changed later in accordance with what was learned while going the wrong direction. But without any direction to constrain the decision-making process, I am left with decisions that take too long to make, and that conflict with each other. Now I just have to apply this idea in picking a direction to help me move forward. We’ll see how that goes.