Be A Visionary
“I have a dream that… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”
Martin Luther King’s speech was ‘I Have a Dream’, not ‘I Have a Plan’. There is a secret to inspiring people the way MLK did, a magic that you can possess and be a part of with enough focus.
A vision is the constitutive feature of a force of change. A movement is the collective behavior resulting from an idea that persuades people to work toward a common goal. The most important feature of a movement is the communication of that vision in such a way that it galvanizes and coordinates action. When that happens, people spontaneously work together, like once randomly-strewn iron filings suddenly aligning around a magnetic field.
Once the vision is perfectly communicated, the right action becomes obvious and spontaneous.
Where Groups Go Wrong
In a 2015 survey of over 900 non-profit boards, researchers at Stanford University concluded that the primary thing these boards should do to achieve their goals is to first define them. The failure to do so is the primary reason for failure. Indeed, by definition, a goal can not be accomplished if it is not defined. This may seem obvious, but very intelligent people have great difficulty in grasping its ramifications. For example:
An NGO with a beautiful and charismatic director obtained a great deal of outside funding without thoroughly defining the organization’s vision. This director had figured out how to tell wealthy donors what they wanted to hear, regarding curbing climate change. Even while believing that she was making progress, she was flexible on every issue and, in truth, optimized her activities for one thing and one thing only -money.
There was no guiding principle. The result was a 300 percent increase in donations, millions of dollars, in a very short period of time. Yet, everyone in the organization was racking their brains as to what to do with all of the funds. They knew they want to do ‘good’ but in the absence of a vision, there was a great deal of inertia and very little focused action. Despite the funds, the organization went bust in a few years. They had assumed that having more money than they knew what to do with was a good problem to have. But as the rapper Notorious B.I.G once said “Mo money mo problems.” [sic]
A famous philosopher, who will also remain anonymous, with many very technical and detailed philosophical ideas, dreams of just having enough to host low-budget conferences for coalition-building. Faced with the decision of how to envision the results of these conferences, what those in his coalition would realistically do to further the vision, he quickly becomes overwhelmed and depressed. To regain a sense of progress and improve his mood, he tries to focus on small things he can do without having to face the tough questions. He longs for a strong-willed individual out there who can move mountains, much like the charismatic director mentioned above. He falls into the trap of believing that money is the limiting factor in getting his ideas off the ground when in reality it’s his lack of vision that fails to attract funding.
He removes the possibility of receiving the help of a go-getter by failing to accept that no progress can occur without a clear vision. Conversations with these would-be empowered leaders quickly turn from the overall vision back to tactics, almost imperceptibly. Would-be volunteers, supporters, leaders, etc go along executing random tasks in the hopes that things will get better, but that is impossible. Vision is being unconsciously avoided by the person with the authority to make decisions. Subordinates of all types are less likely to be able to articulate a vision themselves, but even if they were, they would not have the necessary authority, in association with our philosopher at least, to set that vision.
Another group is a foundation with a sizeable corpus which aims to achieve a particular social reform. However, it is afraid to focus its energies on a particular strategic outcome. Its board knows the policy change it would like to create in the world, but when asked to think strategically about influencing outsiders with political or cultural influence, the conversation quickly devolves into one about tactics, aesthetic preferences, personnel, and other considerations that can only be answered definitely in light of a strategic vision.
One philosophy among the board is that the foundation should be considered a family or a social club. Those receiving funds should be paid to be who they are because there are not many advocates out there and they need support. Those advocating the position are not intentionally harmful or nepotistic; their actions flow from a desire to treat these advocates with decency and respect. They are, however, misguided. Another philosophy that is prevalent is that this group should act diffusely, actively resist focus, and try a bit of every tactic. The idea is ‘who knows what will ultimately work? A shotgun approach is likely to be the best one.’ These vague perceptions reinforce one another and eliminate the possibility of making a bona fide difference that would intuitively meet the board’s deepest aspirations. A goal can not be attained, a question can not be answered, a theory can not be tested, without first defining it.
These groups need a well-defined vision. They need to drop the superfluous and focus on the strategic.
Know What You Want
People go their whole lives believing they want something only to find that it did not satisfy them in the way they thought it would.
A man decides that he wants a Lamborghini, and it becomes a fixation that is seemingly at the center of everything he does. He gets a job he hates, working for people who treat him poorly and sacrifices a lot of day-to-day happiness for his goal. He envisions the beautiful car every time he laments his mistreatment. Ask him why he wants the car, and he might respond that he wants women to desire him, a symbol of his masculinity and financial security. Ask him again why he wants these things and perhaps he will say that he wants to have the freedom to live a life unshackled from employment and to share it with someone who loves, supports and challenges him.
How far have we now come from the original goal? And how distorted and misguided a goal was it considering the true ambitions that the man held for himself? This is but one example of countless personal priorities and broader social structures from the level of small business to political decision-making. Adherence to the Delphic maxim “know thyself” is to be able to cast off the distractions disguised as goals and locate the real outcome you seek. The truth is that personal goals scale up to affect everything, and are in fact a prerequisite for good decisions.
How can we achieve great things and accurately measure our progress if our goals haven’t been clearly defined from the outset? People often speak of efficiency in a vacuum, without defining to what end it is efficient towards or somehow expedites the realization of a goal. We feel strongly that we know what we value, that it’s obvious, and that it is really in line with what will ultimately make us fulfilled. Yet, the tasks we set for ourselves can be horribly misguided and misaligned with what we truly want, had we done the hard work of thoroughly reflecting on it.
For example, people tend to use their daily to-do lists wrong, by identifying a series of random tasks they believe they need to work on. Actions at the level of tasks are essential, but they must be aligned with a larger vision to be worth doing. Tasks are manageable and achievable today, goals are aspirational and long-term. Outcomes go beyond a single action, and encompass a vision of what completion looks like.
Goals Must Be Easy To Envision
Visions are visual. They motivate us at a level deeper than words. We literally have to be able to imagine them visually in order to motivate action. They must paint an idea of the type of world we want to create. For the hiker and mountain climber, tasks include traversing trails, clambering over rocks, fording streams, and the goal or outcome is to reach the peak. The vision is the view overlooking the summit and feeling a sense of accomplishment.
This vision is set with reference to the climber’s values, and so it is with any goal or outcomes we want to achieve; they must reflect our values. Without being aware that we hold different values we can neither prioritize them nor have a chance to synthesize.
Concise, Elegant Goals Automatically Prioritize Action
Richard Branson famously said of a business goal that “if it can’t fit on the back of an envelope, it’s rubbish.” Being able to easily understand a goal in tangible and non-abstract terms is a vital first step before people can get excited about it and take meaningful steps toward it. Beyond this, productivity depends on simple tasks — the what — that can always be referred back to a central goal — the why.
In the private sector, consumers respond first and foremost to the values imbued in a product, not to its technical features and points of difference. Apple doesn’t open any of its communications with the actual details of its newest iPhone or computer; it says things like “We believe in thinking differently. We challenge the status quo with products that are beautifully designed and simple for anyone to use.” This philosophy is what drives its immense popularity, and its central goal as an organization is also its most prominent public message.
Author Simon Sinek has discussed at length and authored books on the subject of purpose in business and leadership. Sinek rightly points out that very few people or organizations know why they do what they do.
And by “why” I don’t mean “to make a profit.” That’s a result. It’s always a result. By “why,” I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care? As a result, the way we think, we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in, it’s obvious. We go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations — regardless of their size, regardless of their industry — all think, act and communicate from the inside out.
Sinek describes how in the human brain, the neocortex corresponds with the “what” level of language, rational and analytical thought. Dig deeper and you will find the limbic system, responsible for feelings, behavior, and decision-making. The implication of this is that emotions, values, visions, drive behavior far more than information. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” – David Hume
The Best Managers Don’t Manage
People don’t need to be managed, just inspired and aligned with a vision. Humans are not mindless automatons without needs and wants of their own. They are ends in and of themselves. You cannot program them like a computer to do your bidding, or whip them into submission. To influence, to win hearts and minds, you have to inspire people. You have to value them, you have to give them the freedom to choose your vision as not only in their personal self-interest, but in the interest of a greater purpose.
Consider recent college graduates seeking to make a difference. If the organization is not aligned with a clear vision, they will grow disillusioned and a great deal of talent will be lost. An organization may chalk up the result to a failing on the part of the subordinate, but it is more likely to be a failing on the part of the organization as a whole to organize its priorities. Managers are usually in a safe position to blame their subordinates, but we have good reason to assume that it is a deeper problem with the organization itself, especially if criticism lies along ageist reasoning. Their impatience is vitally important to pushing organizations in the right direction.
If a coherent, concise strategic vision can be presented, competent subordinates will be empowered and encouraged to work toward that end. They won’t need supervision, only support. They will seek out the needed feedback and critique with a receptive and open mind. This creates an environment of trust and safety, which has been empirically shown to be the most important factor in creating effective teams.
To rally the troops, they must be aligned on precisely why they are working together. Why does it matter and what is their individual role? If they can infer that immediately, without someone barking orders at them, they will search for ways to best use their skills; they will give everything they have for that purpose. Those lower on the totem pole in an organization need to have an emotional stake in outcomes if they are to be achieved in the most efficient and vigorous manner possible. They need to feel safe and protected by those above them in the hierarchy.
If people feel like pawns in an unethical and unfulfilling enterprise, their reliability will be greatly diminished. That said, even if the higher-ups mean well, and their cause is just, this is not enough. People literally have to be able to hold the vision of a desired goal in their mind. It has to motivate them more than money. If your vision is articulated in a manner that does not start with its overall importance, and instead begins with a proposition that is overly complex, technical, or laden with tactics, it will obscure the vision; those you need help from will be unmotivated and ineffective.
Our hearts have to be in the right place, first and foremost, but our analytical brains do as well. Subordinates quickly suss out what an organization is ultimately trying to achieve, and if the organization behaves in irrational, disorganized, and whimsical ways, this will frustrate subordinates. This is especially true of those with a great deal of leadership potential because these are the individuals who care the most about whether they are making a difference or not.
Game theory tells us that preferences must be complete and transitive in order to meet a basic definition of rationality, meaning they are ranked logically with a clear order of preferences, even if some outcomes are equal in weight to one another. With this in mind, every person and organization should be capable of defining meaningful goals within a value system.
The Carver model of governance is a system of guidelines for boards to align interests in effective ways. It suggests that proper evaluation is “impossible unless the board has first stated its expectations and assigned them to a specific delegatee.” Once the board has done its job, effective monitoring becomes possible and is less time consuming, because they know what they are expecting to see proven or unfulfilled. It is up to the board to make sure that they have a coherent vision and then to hire people who can be held accountable to objective deliverables. If goals are left arbitrary, this is a great waste of resources to the organization and inevitably creates unnecessary confusion and conflict.
The point is to maximize accountability and autonomy on specific outcomes that align with larger goals while minimizing micromanagement and supervision. Give the delegatee good parameters and then get out of their way. Let them work their magic. Empower them to come up with creative, expedient, efficient, cost-saving, better-aligned strategies, and tactics corresponding to predefined goals. Don’t breathe down their neck. So long as a few specific objective outcomes are achieved, how they are achieved is irrelevant. Only a few basic ethical and quality control parameters are necessary. Interference in their work is unnecessary. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
One challenge of studying the literature of goal-setting is an inconsistent use of terms. Goals and vision are used somewhat interchangeably in this article, for instance. The main idea is that a vision is defined and communicated clearly and concisely. It is inspiring and easy to understand. It is implemented in a fashion where all items in a hierarchy do not conflict with the higher values in the hierarchy. Tactics cannot conflict with a goal or else they should be thrown out. Strategies should not conflict with visions, or they should be thrown out, and so on. Use whatever terms you like, but the point is that there is a hierarchy of priorities that guide all action.
The MOST system takes a broad approach to setting and accomplishing such goals. By specifying — from the top down — Mission, Objectives, Strategy, and Tactics, it aligns high-level goals with the day-to-day tasks in a way that shows everyone they are aiming for the same target. General Electric has long been a model of task-setting, with its pioneering SMART system. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and fit into a Timeline.
If an outcome is too large and abstract, as is often the case with nonprofit causes, break these goals down into multiple bite-size chunks, or Goldilocks goals. When breaking them down, don’t lose sight of the ultimate desired outcome.
Common Reasons People Avoid Getting Clear on Goals
One obvious reason people fail to set priorities is simply a lack of focus and mental fortitude. It’s hard to shut off our monkey brains. However, the major impediment to sparking a coordinated social force is the belief that the goal already exists and is self-evident, when in fact it isn’t. People can’t understand why others don’t want to do things their way. They believe that it is obvious what the group is about, and others should just fall in line.
The Vietnam War is a good example of this. In the U.S., the public was never clear whether it was fighting to improve the lives of the Vietnamese, to prevent Southeast Asia from becoming communist, or to make profits for companies that produced military hardware. Some citizens wanted to withdraw, and others wanted to escalate. The latter necessarily saw goals in purely tactical terms of “winning,” but they were unable to articulate what winning would look like.
An organization’s goals have to be so obvious that it is unmistakable. But most organizations stop articulating their goals at the point equivalent to claiming that the purpose of the war in Vietnam was to win. A standard vague goal of for-profit companies is “to satisfy customers.” A standard vague goal of nonprofits is to “help people”, “end poverty”, or “reduce suffering.” But until a business knows the specific customers it seeks to satisfy and which unstated goals or needs of those customers it seeks to fulfill, it is not ready to begin satisfying them.
In the case of nonprofits, having a goal requires specifying an outcome in terms of a change in the condition or actions of a defined group. In education, these are called “behavioral outcomes,” which generally means new skills or understandings that have been acquired as a result of a learning unit. Teaching does not occur just because a teacher goes through the motions. Teaching implies learning. The same principle applies to the Red Cross or the Sierra Club. Their goals cannot be vaguely worded statements like “save people” or “protect nature.” They have to refine them to the point that they can judge whether the experiences of a target group have been modified in the way the organization hopes.
The parameters, delineation, and definition of the goal has to be so meticulously designed and elegantly presented such that it truly is obvious to the point of almost being understood non-verbally. There can be no mistake or it will be impossible to coordinate. It’s sort of like writing a contract; all contingencies have to be accounted for. However, creating a vision is much more challenging because all of these contingencies need to be accounted for in a concise format. Just as a picture tells a thousand words, so should a strategic vision.
Another reason spontaneous coordinated action is often difficult is real ideological differences. Since values are so variable and cause conflict, we run the risk of sacrificing effective goal-setting for the short-term benefit of keeping the peace. We also think we can argue the facts in a vacuum, free from values and goals. Everyone’s interests, aesthetic preferences, and moral compasses point in different directions, failing to satisfy basic game theoretic conditions for group rationality (Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem).
We are told that there is nothing we can do about it except pretend that we don’t have values or biases. Modern culture exhibits a kind of scientific fetishism, embracing the theatrical trappings of science but not the actual philosophy underpinning the scientific method. It is to the philosophy of science what the labcoat-wearing snake oil salesmen on Alex Jones are to actual scientists.
To be objective in academia, people must deny values and purposes, as they are a source of inexorable biases. This presumes that it is even possible to be free of bias. News networks impossibly deny their own bias as well, making it all the more pernicious.
The anti-purpose mentality is so pervasive it is hard to notice. Stephen Hawking, however, was not so subtle when he said “Philosophy is dead”, suggesting that physics can provide us with everything that philosophy does, but better. It may even tell us what we ought to value, that is if we really let the data do all the talking. However, data does not interpret itself. Daniel Dennett wrote: “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”
This anti-purpose worldview can also be observed in the way people intuitively think about history and religion. In a cyclical view of history, events are viewed as recurring, no different than before, merely a changing of the seasons. In fact, novel change is not even possible under such a lens. One doesn’t easily recognize they are thinking this way, but it has important implications. Goals are denigrated in favor of the unalterable status quo. Tasks are favored over outcomes; how something is done is deemed more important than why it is done. Otherwise pointless activities become traditions and are even assigned mystical and religious significance. This is the philosophy of Dilbert’s world. It stands in contrast to a linear view of history which forces us to ask what the ultimate outcomes of our efforts are and if what we are doing now aligns with where we ultimately want to go.
There Is No Technological Substitute For Disciplined Goal-Setting
The ease with which many tasks can be completed thanks to tech is a blessing, but the hidden danger of ongoing automation in our quotidian groove is that it blinds us to the need to still have an overarching hierarchy of focused goals. Having a series of automatic reminders for appointments or intelligent filtering of your inbox doesn’t do anything to help this process. Even our most advanced AI is only going to be able to take you as far as listing all the Lamborghinis for sale within a 50-mile radius; it’s not going to say this is the wrong priority in the first place.
There is a place for plug-and-play algorithms in achieving our tasks, though. Whatever our goals are, privately or in the public sphere, they can be achieved in more or less efficient ways. Why wouldn’t we want scientists, marketing experts, and even artificial intelligence to help with efficiency? We will always be limited in the consistency of our work and in the information we have available to us. So, we should let algorithms work to provide us with solutions to problems that we, most importantly, have ourselves already defined.
Metric Fetishism: A Measure Of A Goal Is Not A Goal
The faux-scientific fetishism mentioned earlier crops up in a similar place. Those seeking to signal their intelligence will fetishize numbers, metrics, and mathematization to the exclusions of purposes and goals. ‘I see numbers. I don’t understand them. The presenter must be smarter than me. I’d better accept that their opinion and their goals are superior to mine.’ This is the ultimate rhetorical goal of someone seeking to mislead with numbers, not to provide earnest evidence.
For example, gross domestic product (GDP) is often taken as a general metric of economic well being. There could be a hurricane that causes a spike in construction and thus GDP, but you would not conclude that we are better off because there was a hurricane. We could pay people to start digging holes and fill them again, increasing GDP. GDP could even be going up while the median income is going down. We could be breaking windows just to fix them. We could be increasing GDP by reducing leisure time or destroying the environment.
GDP could go up when we spend more money on healthcare than is necessary because insurance is cartelized. In this case, increasing competition in the healthcare sector and efficiency could actually drive GDP down with lower healthcare costs, but we would be better off. GDP doesn’t tell you what our ultimate goal is or if we are any closer to reaching it. Yet, lay people and economists alike constantly slip into talking about GDP as a goal in and of itself. It is but one metric, one that is not really even that useful when discussing our aspirations as a society. We are optimizing our economic policies on the basis of this metric, and it does a lot of harm. Metrics do not tell you what you ought to value.
Why Setting Goals Is Difficult
People are running around thinking about this detail and that detail — an emotive, self-referential mess. We could get a sense of accomplishment from shuffling paper if we were under the illusion that that was our ultimate goal. Institutions, including big companies, do this constantly. They may have been successful innovators in the past, but they fall into the trap of doing what they’ve always done, tactically but not in purpose, getting hung up on outmoded ways of doing things because they forget that it is the ultimate outcome that matters. Eventually, they adapt and get new life blood or they become sclerotic and die out.
A primary reason people don’t prioritize their goals is that it is computationally difficult, mentally and emotionally taxing, and forces us to recognize our mistakes. In a competitive dog-eat-dog environment where management fires people for mistakes instead of encouraging learning, it’s obvious why the topic would be avoided.
It takes a lot of focus, research, time and energy to come to sensible conclusions about what ought to be done. You can feel confused and that you’re not getting anywhere. It’s much easier to just adopt a belief system that is spoon fed to you about what you ought to do than to be the Übermensch, as it were. If the ‘why’ isn’t understood and held above all else, devotion to an ideal becomes about completing random sisyphean tasks.
Why Communicating Goals Is More Critical Than Ever
Just when we thought we had made so much progress purging the world of Nazis and supposedly winning the Cold War, in battling racial and LGBT oppression, we have become complacent. We were so confident that we knew our purpose and had articulated our priorities poetically that we thought the work was done. We let our political parties erode into nothing more than naked self-interest.
We’ve rested on our laurels for far too long, and our self-righteous laziness has been disturbed by a series of vulgar and rude awakenings over the last year. The most esteemed position in our society, the person most emblematic of our collective aspirations is a flagrant narcissist, racial opportunist, and fascist. We are experiencing an existential crisis over who we are and what we believe. And not only that, our political existential crisis is bordering on a real one as the U.S. and North Korea square off over nuclear weapons.
It is not enough that we have rosy abstract ideas of what the world should be or a neat 12-point plan. Our strategic visions need to galvanize emotions and direct spontaneous and well-coordinated action. They need to be concise and instantaneously prioritize certain actions over others, tradeoffs that may be difficult to make but are absolutely necessary.
We cannot merely define ourselves in opposition to Trump. We get rid of him, what then? We get rid of Saddam Hussein, what then? We get rid of ISIS, what then? We get rid of Kim-Jong un, what then? We get rid of this banker or that CEO, what then? We get rid of this director or this bad manager, what then?
Our goals and actions have to point to a clear destination. More than ever, the world needs a vision.