Change Relies on Vision

Last month I offered a way to define leadership. This month, I’m starting at the start for leaders of change.

All change begins with an idea, a vision of a future different from the present. Vision and ideas exist in the realm of inspiration. Leadership skills such as comfort with ambiguity, the ability to spark creative thinking, to inspire and enlist others reside in this domain. Most leaders find this the most difficult of the four domains to engage with because it’s not linear and asks us to delay execution of our ideas. The inspirational realm is messy, organic and requires time to nurture ideas. It’s uncomfortable for many “type As,” who prefer action.

But rushing through the realm of inspiration sows the seeds of failure for change projects. Leaders who short-change vision work in favor of hitting the ground running often find themselves crashing straight into a brick wall, an expensive brick wall. Focusing on vision allows for much more robust planning than a dash to launch. A clear and compelling vision is the foundation that a change project needs to see successful implementation.

If you want to see the power of a focused vision, visit the Argenta Farmers Market in North Little Rock. Jody Hardin and a small band of rebels have created a local-products-only farmers’ market largely on the strength of a vision and the contagion of Hardin’s passion. His vision was so intense that, for a time, it took him past visionary into the realm of radical. But his willingness to live in the ambiguous and sometimes frustrating realm of envisioning a different future is one of the keys to the very existence of the Certified Arkansas Farmers’ Market.

The retail space that Hardin had in Little Rock’s River Market was sufficient to feed that vision for a while. Hardin describes his own radicalization, his growing belief in the need for a purer form of market and his frustration with the direction of the River Market, a direction not aligned with his beliefs. And of course, not everyone buys in. But we’re not debating right or wrong here.

There are plenty who feel Hardin went off the deep end. But it was his refusal to compromise his vision that forced a radical and controversial step. He left the River Market and began putting together a second farmers’ market in an area that can barely support one framers’ market. The danger of a powerful vision is that it can take you over. You’ve read it here many times: “Any asset overused becomes a liability.” Ultimately, though, it was Hardin’s vision of a new future that produced the patience and the passion to attract others who could help make it a reality.

For many business people, vision is a trap. Because of a need for control or even a lack of imagination, their vision must dictate not just the outcome, but also the process. As they attract the interest of others, they often lose support for their vision because of their insistence that the work be done a certain way – their way.

The willingness to focus on a vision long enough for it to ripen matters most. Leaders who rush to execution – and even planning – too soon do not have enough time to fully understand the implications of the change and  are often sucker punched well into the project. This will be clearer in two months when we deal with emotion and resistance. For now, suffice to say that rushing through the vision process generally ends in hitting a wall of resistance after the money is spent. Most failed changes collapse at the rollout stage, but that fate was sealed before the plans were even approved.

When the project becomes more difficult and expensive than you thought – and it will – no level of management skill or amount of money will sustain change in the way that widespread passion for the vision will.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, November 16, 2009.