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Sightseeing – Developing Visionary Behaviour

What do you think of when you think of Visionaries?

They are special people with special qualities. They see the writing on the wall. They can  read between the lines and see connections and patterns that others might not see. That’s  why we call them Visionary.

Because of this, they can steer great change, allowing your organisation to get ahead of the  traffic.

 Who do you think of when you think of visionaries? Martin Luther King? Leonardo da Vinci?  Bill Gates?

It’s very tempting to think that Visionaries are some rare breed, a remarkable freak of  nature. We tend to assume that they are exceptional people whom we are only likely to  encounter once or twice in a generation. We might think of them (with grudging grace) as mavericks that play a vital role but need to be contained.

But it really isn’t helpful to think of visionaries in this way. In fact, it can be an excuse for other people not playing their full part in future-gazing and future-shaping.

I have a vision for Your Company.

It might be wild and fanciful. It might be some way down the road. But I believe that at some time in the future, being visionary won’t be an activity denied to the masses. It won’t be the preserve of ‘special’ people, or the power of the few?

I believe that one day all your people will be able to engage in visionary activities, because the benefits of doing so are just too great.

I think that it is highly likely, that your employees already have the visionary streak, but they haven’t yet allowed it free reign.

For now, they’re too comfortable and cosy in the cockpits of their company cars, surrounded by on-board computers and evermore elaborate gadgets that stop them having to think.

Maybe they are closet visionaries. They’re locked in the closet of the present, or even the past and they pay scant regard to the future.

And when they do think of the future they do so only within the narrow confines of their understanding of today. But this doesn’t mean they can’t be visionary, only that they haven’t been visionary so far. They haven’t come out of the closet.

I believe it’s a truism in personal development that the past does not dictate the future…unless we let it. If I am right, then just because we haven’t used our visionary gene before, doesn’t mean we don’t have it or that we can’t use it from now on.

So what’s stopping us?

Who Put the Brakes On?

The trouble is that some of our corporate behaviours don’t encourage people to be visionary. In fact people can feel actively discouraged. Here’s what I see.

1. Back Seat Drivers. The message we tend to give out is that Visionaries are tolerated as a necessary evil, and the last thing we want to do is create a whole team of them. What on earth would we do if we had a whole team of da Vinci’s? There is a fear that if they outnumber us mere mortals within an organisation, they will permanently upset the status quo; they will always be competing for alternative realities; and they will become a destabilising influence.

So we like to keep them at arm’s length, in the back seat; and put a lid on anyone who starts having visions of a different future.

2.Head in the Clouds. Thinking activities don’t look like real work, so we don’t trust them. They are hard to measure so we don’t reward them. We often preside over (and create) a cult of tangibility where as long as people are moving, shuffling real objects, building something concrete, or exchanging precise information, they are considered to be working.

But sitting quietly thinking is not considered the done thing. It appears as if they are slacking or shirking or zoning out. It’s hard to explain how this is adding value when they have a 30-item ‘to-do list’ in their in-tray, and 75 emails to open.

 3. Eyes on the Dashboard. Some organisations seem to spend so much time looking in rather than looking-out. Their fascination with gazing at their own dashboard means that they often fail to spot the approaching tornado looming on the horizon.

Too much insularity breeds content. We start to think of ourselves and our company as being at the centre of the universe. We get drawn in to believing that the company is a social infrastructure designed specifically to provide us with work. Energies are spent on internal workings and mechanisms, internal disputes and hiccups, internal practices and configurations, internal systems to manage the internal population.

But as we’re driving along, who’s looking out the window asking, “What are we really here for? Who are our customers? What’s the world like out there? What does it need from us? What are the trends? What’s our future?”

It doesn’t take the few creative visionaries to ask or answer these questions. Everyone can do it if we let them.

We need to make space within our companies so that everyone can become more inquisitive and visionary, if we are to have a fighting chance of managing and creating change more effectively.


We do like neat labels, don’t we? Life is so much easier if we define people (usually rather dismissively) as ‘The Dreamer’ or ‘The Analyst’, as if dreaming or being analytical is the only thing they do.People who have the capacity to be visionary (and exercise it) are not solely defined by this one characteristic.

Just because I have the capacity to identify a number of malt whiskies from a blind tasting, does not mean that I am simply a drunk. I am much more complex than that!

So, perhaps if we were to look at ‘Being Visionary’ from a behavioural competence perspective rather than as a description of a personality type, we might be able to uncover what it is, and stand a chance of replicating it…in each and every one of us.

Getting Hold of the Steering Wheel

So what’s it going to take to develop our innate but dormant visionary capability?

Here are five ideas to start with.

1.      Do the Mystery Tour

If we don’t see it we don’t think about it. It’s a case of ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’.

And if we don’t think about it, we don’t go looking for it. We don’t even know if it’s there.

There is a danger that we might only see what we want to see, but if we don’t look, we won’t see it at all.

So first of all, we have to force ourselves to look. That means opening our minds to what we might discover and not being afraid of the mystery. Then we have to start dreaming a little.

In essence, we all need to become strategic tourists.

The world is a rich and varied place, and there are many lessons to be learned by extending our area of focus.

The most successful companies don’t just duck and dive, careering this way and that to contend with shocks and surprises. They try to reduce the number and scale of surprises.

They create their own future by:

  1.  studying the landscape

  2. observing the trends

  3. remaining alert to subtle but significant patterns of social and commercial behaviour

  4. and being prepared to look, even if they might not like what they see.

2.      Look at the Road Ahead

When you’re driving along the motorway, you don’t fix your gaze on the car bonnet.

You look at the road ahead. This is the only way you can spot the dangers and warning signs in order to take controlled evasive action.

If the future is a road, we need to have a strong sense of where it is going and what’s in the way.

We live in a time where the pace of change is incredibly fast. We’ve come a long way from the Model T Ford.

Today, we are not so much on a country lane as on a four-lane highway, in rush hour, with a contraflow system in place, emergency vehicles blue-lighting us, a spilt load ahead, speed cameras and wild deer crossing.

We’ve got things coming at us from all directions so we need to be alert. We can’t afford to fall asleep at the wheel. We have to expand our field of vision, check our rear-view mirror, look out for road signs, and check our fuel gauge and where we can next fill up. We do this in a car because we don’t want to end up as a crash statistic.

The world of business isn’t so different.

  1.  We now live in a truly global economy – with all its threats and fragilities

  2. There are new world powers emerging that have the capacity to destabilise current alliances and regimes

  3. The world is changing geographically and meteorologically, borders are being redrawn & landscapes reshaped

  4. As people, we have different (and some say more demanding) expectations and needs

  5. Technological advances mean that we way we do business and communicate with each other is changing

Just as the driver makes use of all available instruments to help navigate this landscape, business leaders need to encourage their people to use the instruments available to them.

One such instrument is a PESTLE analysis. It offers a way of becoming alert to change (real or anticipated). By assessing the world outside from the perspectives of Political, Economic, Sociological, Technological, Legal & Environmental activity across the medium to long term, we can quickly identify changes that have the capacity to affect us.

I would go further by looking at philosophical changes which define the values, morals and ethics by which we feel it appropriate to conduct ourselves universally or nationally. It may have been considered fair-game for bakers to pad out bread with wood chippings in Victorian times, but these practices are frowned upon today. Who knows what we will consider acceptable at some point in the future.

This process clarifies the huge melting pot of change which we need to contend with. All of which, if we see it coming, we can divert, navigate, protect against and turn to our advantage.

A simple PESTLE analysis helps to answer some of those important questions I posed earlier:

  1. What are we really here for?

  2. Who are our customers?

  3. What’s the world like out there?

  4. What does it need from us?

  5. What are the trends?

  6. What’s our future?”

Teams need to carry out activities like these regularly and together.

3.      Have a Clear Map

There’s the apocryphal story of JFK visiting NASA headquarters in the 1960’s. He stopped to talk to one of the Janitors and when he asked, “What do you do?” the Janitor replied. “I’m helping to put a man on the moon, sir”.

This man understood the context within which he was operating, and the important role he had to play. He knew why he was there and why what he did was so important. He knew where he fitted into the story. What vision. What great sense of purpose.

Companies must make their vision clear to their employees. And employees must be able to see where they fit. Feeling on the map is hugely liberating. Instead of getting bogged down in the mire and minutiae of our daily tasks (which on the face of it can sometimes seem irrelevant and menial), we start to see how our role actually shapes the route. This is what makes work so motivating.

4.      Give Yourself Room to Manoeuvre

Some companies recognise and value the power of visionary behaviour, dreaming, innovation, creativity, & thinking-time.  They prize it so highly that they make space for it within their work schedule.

Nokia offer an example of this. Teams of ‘Nokia-Creatives’ can often be seem wandering the corridors mulling over interesting ideas that might satisfy our ever-growing thirst for mobile technology. Being visionary is actively encouraged, expected and accommodated. Time is set aside for it, and it isn’t regarded as slacking.

Any company can do this. Setting aside dedicated time for these activities and making space to share the ideas and outputs in a genuinely open forum, can only be a positive thing if it is part of a balanced approach to work. We still need to look in the rear-view mirror and check the dashboard, but not at the expense of looking through the windscreen.

One company I work with built what it called a Creative Room. It was a comfortable place for people to go where they could sit, relax, think, discuss, play, dream, ponder and investigate. It was a place requiring no clear agenda other than to consider the future and how we can prepare for it or shape it. It was a space away from the hurly-burly of business-as-usual activities, interruptions and distractions.

But as pressure on office space increased, slowly the Creative Room became just another meeting room and the impetus was lost. These things only work if you are committed to them and prepared to see them through.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need a Creative Room. We can all be more creative and visionary if we are given the permission to be so. It’s often not the space, but the cultural expectation that counts.

5.      Plan Longer Journeys

Visionaries look not just one month or one year ahead, but five or ten years ahead.

Some look 50 or 100+ years ahead.

Their predictive accuracy might diminish the longer the timescale they look at, but they aren’t afraid to look.

And because they believe they can create their own reality, they draw the outline of the future that they then start to paint, even if they will never see the completed canvas.

So we need to look further ahead than we have become used to doing, and not be afraid to start a journey that we won’t be around long enough to complete or get the credit for starting.


Stimulating visionary behaviour means encouraging people to:

  1. build plans for the long term, rather than always reacting to the present

  2. recognise the context within which they work and the contribution they make to the final outcome

  3. consider gradual evolution rather than rapid growth (which invariably stimulates a cycle of boom and bust)

  4. keep their eyes open and on the road

  5. force themselves to look

These are just some of the things that visionary people and far-sighted companies do.

And I believe that it’s what everyone will do, one day. Because without clear vision we will never see a brighter and better future.

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