Dream or Vision

In his 2009 book “How the Mighty Fall,” Jim Collins examines great companies that have fallen from their places at the pinnacle of their markets. Collins posits that the seeds of their fall are planted during the apogee of their performance. Much the same is true of change initiatives. The seeds of failure are planted during the earliest stages of the project. Unfortunately, they do not blossom until after most of the budget is spent, making a very expensive garden.

The best research we have on business change shows that 70 percent of all change initiatives fail. Business change programs generally spend most of their budget before they fail, which makes them painful and expensive. One of the most critical and least attended factors for success – and one that can help weed out those seeds of failure early – is the difference between a dream and a vision.

Dreams are easy. With even the most cursory idea about what I want to get accomplished, I can go straight to planning. In fact, this is how most change initiatives begin. We want to be action-oriented and aggressive. Take, for instance, the local company (that will remain nameless) that wanted to streamline the logistics for both incoming raw materials and factory deliveries.

The leadership team was all for implementing a new software program to support just-in-time delivery of raw goods and the creation of a network of warehouses that would allow them to reduce order-fulfillment time. The leadership team had been offsite talking about what it would look like when it was complete and so felt ready to launch. Within days of getting back to the office, a team of analysts was hired from a consulting firm to begin determining requirements and a planning team was working on timelines and budgets.

None of this is bad stuff to be doing, of course. But the difference between a dream and a vision is more than a plan – at least more than the usual plan. Most planning consists of timelines and budgets but misses the harder work an organization will need to do to deliver. More time understanding the changes that would be needed to its management scorecard, incentive systems, organizational makeup and vendor relationships would have made it clearer to this company what would be needed. In short, the place where the money was to be spent (software and warehouses) became the major focus of the project plan, and everything else became an ancillary detail. Even if those major concerns that usually get short shrift in the planning process are details, we all know who lives in the details.

The software was installed and the warehouses built. But the project dies a slow and painful death when fundamental changes in the performance measurement, incentives and technical standards with key vendors became a sticking point. The score: 95 percent of the project budget spent, zero percent of the value received. Demoralized project staff and damaged vendor relations do not hit the P/L directly, but they matter as well. Half of the project team left the organization despite retention efforts to keep them.

A vision is a dream that has been tempered with a robust understanding of what will be needed – and what will need to be overcome – to bring it to fruition. A vision passes two tests that a dream cannot:

  • A vision is robust enough to sustain the project through organizational resistance to change and in fact includes the strategies needed to engage actively with that resistance.
  • A vision includes sufficient understanding of all the changes that will be needed to see a business outcome and includes a roadmap for navigating all those changes.

And while looking for those seeds, organizational leaders should be certain to look in the mirror. Collins’ reason for why the mighty fall is most often hubris. The same can be said for why projects fail: A can-do attitude that gets off the leash can be very expensive.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, January 30, 2012.