pragmatically speaking, a business vision should be like a grand strategy


“Imagined futures are only stories, but stories run the world, or at minimum lay the tracks for its passage, without which it would move in a different direction entirely.”

Sam Paterson


“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

E.F. Schumacher


Establishing a business Vision seems to be a lost art these days. It has been replaced by the misguided Purpose and, well, it really hasn’t been a very productive decade or so for business thinking. I can’t really blame Purpose because it simply filled in a hole that some absurd Vision discussions had created. Let me be clear. A good business vision is very similar to the concept of a “grand strategy.” What I mean by that is it creates an ideal mental destination from which strategies spin out of and iteratively evolve to support. That said. The purpose of a vision is to not only to set out a better destination, but also to create lasting advantages. This means a larger vision should enable coherent strategies which can be used over time. If a vision is soundly conceived, the overall guiding principles may remain the same over a period of years or even decades, but the precise combination of strategies and tactics used to pursue those goals will undoubtedly shift as conditions change and competition reacts. As a corollary, this demands some leadership resilience second guessing a larger vision simply because a strategy or an idea was a bad one.

Which leads me to say I’ve heard many arguments against a Vision, but I would argue refusing to do one does not allow a business to avoid the dilemmas that make the task so difficult, in fact, I would argue it will only exacerbate confusion and contradictions. A business must embrace the daunting conditions within which to place a Vision and place a higher premium on the intellectual groundwork which underpins a Vision. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out one of the issues with ignoring a larger vision is that you find that you make decision making by gravity, i.e., a decision becomes part of a ‘law’ of activity, wherein points of traction get confused and conflated with lasting strategy. That said. It helps to think of vision as a process and not a blueprint. It should not be a doctrine of ‘if this then that’, but rather be a framework from within which a business can define specific strategies and make coherent decisions.

Which leads me to a Vision is an essentially optimistic undertaking.

It rests on the idea that states one can combine vision and rationality with some sort of power against and a dynamic marketplace. It suggests that leaders can salvage order from chaos and impose some sense of meaning on events. At its core a vision isn’t just about some ideal, but about asserting a degree of control and coherence in ones dealing in an uncertain world. It demands that you find some strategic insights about the world that can be confronted and leveraged and then translate those insights into specific strategies and tactics to attain objectives that fulfill your optimism. Once again, one of the objectives is lasting advantages. This demands there’s a business must learn and adapt in order to find the right mix within the context of the time. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there will always be some second order consequences but that shouldn’t limit ambition or optimism. There are clearly limits to what a vision can accomplish in an adverse environment and context, but a vision provides focus (as long as that focus doesn’t create distortions or myopia). The optimism is buttressed by the duality of confidence to be decisive and the humility to be constantly questioning all inevitably rooted in navigating the natural tensions of a dynamic market:

  • between the quest for coherence and the reality of complexity
  • between the need for foresight and the fact of uncertainty
  • between the steadiness and purpose that are necessary to plan ahead and the agility that is required to adapt over time

Which leads me to Vision is also about wielding power.

The purpose of a vision should be the task of bringing together all aspects of the business power to achieve an important objective. To be clear this does not mean to simply turn all available capabilities towards achieving victory, but rather effective use of resources at the right time. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that achieving a Vision is not an end in and of itself; it is simply the means of securing a better place for the business and its people. A vision is ultimately the intellectual architecture in which to wield the power at hand by giving form and structure to specific strategies and tactics. Reduced to its essence a vision is the logic that helps businesses navigate a complex and dangerous world permitting a business to devise a coherent purposeful approach.

Which leads me to implementation.

“The primary purpose of any theory is to clarify concepts and ideas that have become confused and entangled. Not until terms and concepts have been defined can one hope to make any progress in examining the question clearly and simply and expect the reader to share one’s views.”

Carl von Clausewitz

When it comes to implementing a vision there is never enough of anything to go around. Money, people, intelligence, time, assets, and other finite resources are always insufficient to neutralize every threat and exploit every opportunity. If business leaders are to avoid strategic exhaustion and eventual business decline, they must maintain a firm understanding of core interests and deploy their resources accordingly. A coherent vision offers a conceptual center of gravity and ability to keep fundamental interests squarely in view in dealing with a range of complex and competing demands. Wielding power is inherently multidimensional. Means must be integrated to serve great ends, but ends must be selectively defined to preserve a business’s means. This is challenging because this Vision occurs in a world where almost nothing sits still so the calculations underlying the vision must inevitably shift as well. The overall goal of the vision may remain constant, but its various subcomponents decisions on how to how best to allocate resources should be reassessed consistently. In this sense vision requires not just a capacity for systematic thinking, but also flexibility and an ability to adapt. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a vision then both influences and is influenced by the behavior of others.

Which leads me to context and situations.

Conceptually, context is everything, pragmatically, the situation is everything and all exist within a Vision. A context has infinite aspects while a situation has some finite aspects. i am consistent in how I point out that 99.9999999% of situational decisions are finite in nature – WITHIN a relatively infinite world of possibilities (unforeseen consequences beyond a horizon). So, pragmatically, a situation demands ‘decision sight’ in order to diagnose the most effective strategy (and, yes, I am suggesting each decision is a strategy in and of itself) and the Vision offers a ‘sight line.’

  • ** note: I believe in a dynamic, or complex, system – of which I believe 99% of business resides within – almost every decision has some strategic consequences. This does not mean there isn’t a hierarchy of strategic thinking just that each decision is a strategic decision within a grander strategy/vision, i.e., a common objective or vision in mind.

All of this creates some specific demands of people, the organization, and the system itself as well as reflecting on underlying assumptions. Many people discuss bias or mental models, I tend to focus more on reflection as a means to a better decision-making end. People make some 30,000 decisions a day so some default thinking is necessary simply to get shit done (let alone maintain some sanity). But. You also have to be able to discern the moments to proactively reflect on underlying assumptions. I believe it was Andrew Grove of Intel who called this ‘learning to effectively worry.’ You worry, a bit, about some of the basic assumptions commonly made and whether they work within the situation at hand – or do they put a modeling constraint on which, in this situation, can be set aside. I tend to believe what I am suggesting is a bit easier if you have a good Vision (or grand strategy).

“Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, intelligent direction and skillful execution.”

Dr. John Ellis – Valvoline

I like thinking of Vision as a grand strategy. It offers some pragmatism to the endeavor. When it comes to thinking about a vision as an endeavor too often it is thought of as a grandiose transformative project to remake not only the business, but the dynamics of the market the business exists within. It is often positioned as a panacea that will wipe away the complexity of business. This is just begging for disappointment. In view of the current economic business dynamics, as well as experiences that all of business has had over at least the last decade or two, grand transformative changes are few and far between. But this doesn’t mean that we can allow vision development to go by the wayside if we ever expect to transcend the uncertainties and challenges of a constantly changing business environment. Look. I have suggested Utopian thinking is good for business and we need more of it. I have suggested Idealism is needed if business wants to be better. But at the core of all my ‘optimistic thinking’ is always pragmatism. The possibilities explored through optimism must be grounded in some pragmatic realities.

Which leads me to state that at its worst a vision can provide an intellectual reference point for dealing with all challenges and the process by which dedicated business people can seek to bring their day-to-day actions into better alignment with their enduring businesses interests. At its best a vision, well, can actually shape the future you desire. Ponder.

Written by Bruce