A week ago, I was in a meeting with the CEO of a middle sized firm. He explained how they were organized, and drew a diagram of the main units. He explained that they had introduced this organizational model only a few months ago.
I asked him whether he believed this model was the “final one” – or whether it was a necessary, transitional step to another model.
He paused for a few seconds, rose from his chair, walked to the other side of the room to close the door, which had been left half open when we entered.
Then he sat down again and drew another diagram, completely different from the first one. And he went on to explain why the firm would have to adopt this alternative model.
Think about this for a moment: The rest of the organization is busy trying to understand and implement the most recent re-design, and the CEO is already thinking about the next one!
Visionary leaders are often one step ahead of the rest of us. As Jack Welch once pointed out, such leaders “can see around the corner”. They anticipate and prepare for what happens next.
There’s a story about John Sculley, the former head of Apple Computers, that is illustrative.
Sculley was trained as an architect. While he was with Apple, he designed a holiday home. While the building was still under construction, he invited one of his staff members to visit.
He went for a tour of the building, and when he came to the sitting room, he asked: “What do you think about the view to the rose garden?” The staff member looked out of the window, but could only see rubble.
The world needs visionary leaders (without them, Apple wouldn’t have existed). Yet there’s a big challenge here.
The challenge is that others may not see the rose garden, at least not yet. Or they may see it, but prefer quite a different kind of garden. So often what starts as visionary inspiration leads to a long drawn process of convincing others to buy into a proposed design.
A well-known expert on decision processes, professor Paul Nutt, estimates that the chances of making the right decision decreases by 50% if you start a process by communicating a preferred solution. The reason is that it creates resistance (if people don’t understand the rationale behind the solution) and discourages a search for even better alternatives.
If you are a leader, what can you do?
There is no easy answer. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that you should stop thinking about the future. And there will probably always be some degree of tension between what we as leaders view as necessary, and what followers believe is possible or desirable.
It seems clear, though, that we should be careful about starting a change process by communicating a preferred solution. Before we do that, we should try to identify whether there is a felt need for change: Did the discussions at the last management forum meeting suggest that people are aware of the shortcomings of the current model? What about the feedback from employees and customers, or from the board?
If there is not already a felt need for change, we need to focus hard on creating a shared understanding of the need for change among key stakeholders and engage the entire system in a “strategic conversation” (to use the term coined by Arie de Geus).
In the initial phase, it may help to distance ourselves somewhat from a potential solution, and focus more on articulating the goal or the design criteria: “We agreed at the last meeting that we are not able today to utilize our resources effectively across the sites. So we know that improved resource utilization is a key criterion for our future organization”.
One thing that we should do as leaders is to design the decision process. Refraining from proposing a preferred solution does not mean that you should delegate the decision process itself.
By sketching out a decision process with different phases, you can alternative between steps where you work more individually, and steps where you involve a lot of people to gather data and generate new ideas.
Another possibility is to propose two potential solutions, and ask people to debate the merits of both (ideally, with reference to the goals or design criteria that have been formulated. )
If you are visionary enough to imagine one rose garden, you might also be able to imagine two.