By George Smart
We all know the value of vision. The Greek philosophers spoke about it. Former President George Bush recommended attention to "the vision thing." What happens when an organization's problem isn't a lack of vision but too much? What happens when the CEO's vision changes monthly or even weekly -- driving his organization crazy? Welcome to Visionary's Disease. If you are working with someone who suffers from it, you are probably very frustrated.
Here's a case history. A number of years ago, I was brought into a high-tech company to look at why morale was poor and projects always behind schedule and overbudget. When I met the CEO, the problem was clear. It was my first exposure to Visionary's Disease, and he had a serious case. Like many techno-CEOs, "Don" was young, brilliant, and unorganized. Some months earlier, the company had been given a major cash infusion from a Fortune 500 company. With this new cash, Don could attend virtually any conference he wanted. He went everywhere, from Indiana to Indonesia. He networked with internationally known men and women who shaped the industry.
Each time, he returned home with a new grand vision and within 24 hours called a special management meeting to discuss it. Sometimes, he actually tried to conduct these meetings from the plane heading home. Managers soon learned that "discussion" really meant "announcement." The obvious next step - a discussion of what people should stop doing or do less of to start anything new - was implicitly taboo. Only in the most passive way ("I know we're all busy, but …") would Don acknowledge that everyone was already working above capacity. Afterwards, disappointed in staff lack of enthusiasm, Don frequently said his people "lacked vision."
Don's new visions typically involved heroic efforts and substantial redirection of already overstretched resources. After each announcement meeting, managers returned to their departments to dismantle what had been underway. A frantic round of meetings and e-mails would bring the company to a screeching halt as frustration levels soared, planning ceased, and everyone scrambled to redirect customers, suppliers, and each other. Then Don would leave for another trip. This happened almost monthly.
It was hard to object. Don was brilliant, and most of the time, Don was completely RIGHT with his ideas. But Don did not want to listen to objections. He treated practical concerns about stability, capacity, and leadership as signs of disloyalty, laziness, or the most deadly sin of all - technical ignorance. Company turnover soared to 25%, the investors were nervous, and sales dropped because salespeople were never sure what to sell. Project management stalled and employees had a glazed-over look most of the time.
I'd like to report a fitting moral conclusion to this story, something like Don going out of business for his failure to sustain a vision, or Don firing all the "vision-lacking" employees and getting better ones. Unfortunately, Visionary's Disease is infrequently fatal. After the money ran out, Don simply went out and got more. Millions more. The promise of his software was so alluring that it really didn't matter whether people were efficient or not. Companies or agencies with lots of cash/budget can and do get away with this behavior.
Visionary's Disease is extremely resistant to conventional treatments. CEOs rarely see their behavior as symptomatic of anything negative. In fact, they herald their ability-to-turn-on-dime as a great strength. This collusion of budget and brilliance brings feelings of creative liberation and often marks the beginning of infection. So what can one do when the senior manager shows signs of Visionary's Disease? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Gently, surface the assumptions a new vision implies. For example, will it mean bringing in new specialists and in what timeframe? Will it mean the CEO has to stay home more to cheerlead and/or direct a project? Surfacing assumptions immediately puts boundaries on a vision (keep reminding the CEO this is a good thing) and begins the essential crystallizing process from which plans can be sanely made.
2. Get agreement to reduce the number of times the vision can change in a year. Establish a quarterly strategy conference in which the CEO shares what they've learned recently and their thought for change. Setting up expected changes reduces the incredible stress that frequent, sudden changes can cause.
3. Establish a "cooling off period" between the CEO's first meeting and any decisions to start working on major initiatives. Agree that nothing changes until the CEO calls this second meeting to formally sanction any new vision. You'll be amazed how frequently the second meeting never gets called.
4. Use crises as teachable moments to give CEO's feedback on organizational capacity. When things are going poorly, resistance to feedback can lessen enough to engage a frank discussion of capacity.
5. Honor the reality of people's capacity. A common corporate fantasy is that people have unlimited capacity and can do everything anytime, but we all know this isn't true. Know what you want to stop doing or decrease before you increase.
6. Honor the reality of people's productivity. Working longer hours is not the answer to all project management problems. Nearly every CEO I have coached is proud of their 60-hour weeks. They wear them like a badge of honor. But any sane plan has to start with realism. If you really want to work smarter, stop working so long, and the really unimportant tasks will fall away. Heart attack victimslearn this valuable lesson the hard way, and they will tell you they are better for it.
7. Have the CEO take an operations person along on some trips. In many companies, operations is the last area to know about a change, yet they are often the most directly affected. Including this function earlier in vision development is a wonderful reality check. Given half a chance, the operations perspective can show the CEO a better and substantially more implementable idea.
At the very least, look at your own practices as an executive. Are you changing direction so frequently as to drive your spouse, your colleagues, or your clients crazy? Are you so brilliant that cash flow obscures the many fits and starts you've thrown your company into? As with most diseases, the cure starts at home.